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Martha Rosler

A "progressive" agenda still carries weight among artists and videomakers in the Untied States and Canada. The retrograde politics of exclusion and divisiveness that obtain in much of our culture (and increasingly in the discourse of the State) run counter to the expressed values of the art world and of the videomakers more or less in its orbit. In the art world, relatively inclusive cultural politics may be honored more in the breach than in the observance, but at least the homophobia, sexism, Euorcentrism, anti-Semitism increasingly promoted in the culture at large aren't respectably articulated there. Furthermore, there seem to be a growing number of videotapes critical of repressively hegemonic cultural values, including a growing number made by people ignored, stereotyped, or stigmatized in the larger culture.

More avenues of distribution are available now than when I started making videotapes in the early 1970s, thanks to the changes set in motion by the growth of cable, the popularization of home VCR's and "camcorders," and the adaptation of independent video techniques for music videos. The visibility of nonbroadcast video as a public medium has been (ironically, I suppose) heightened by its being broadcast: shows like America's Funniest Home Videos have hyped amateur productions, and the wide play given to tapes made by ordinary people furnishing evidence of crimes (especially those committed by police) have increased the importance of nonprofessional witness. Broadcast news shows use home-camera war footage in a way that newspapers haven't used amateur photographs. The technically degraded video image has become an accepted marker of "real life actualities," blowing the "poor technical quality" alibi that television stations used to fall back on in rejecting independent work.

All this doesn't mean that independent videomakers are now able to "editorialize" on mainstream television (see recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review discussing the disfavor that independent producer Jon Alpert has fallen into with network news despite his long history with them), but it does widen the crack for our work. (A negative effect is the tendency to abandon "appropriation" -- the critique of television through direct quotation -- or even less direct types of television critique.) Our work is also now more likely to be mentioned or reviewed in general interest publications -- admittedly those on the left -- and carried by home-video distributors. At the same time, video may be shown more often in museums, but generally at the expense of political content, with the sometime exception of some works about the social marginalization of various population groups. Unfortunately, of the more autonomous places to show, including the artist-run spaces and community galleries that have depended largely on government money, few remain; in addition, schools and institutions are slashing their video rental and sales budgets. This puts even stronger pressure on us to seek recognition from more intractable or more conservative institutions, the museums and even the television industry -- or at least public television.

In an approach to FELIX's question of how we position ourselves within a cultural framework, I'll use some of my own work to suggest how such changes in the cultural landscape may drive changes in strategy. Under the auspices of Seattle's art commission, I've been working with Native Americans, using Hi8 to produce one-minute or shorter "spots" about their "hidden histories," in the hopes that the commercial stations in town will broadcast them (the stations have shown interest...). Although I tend to be the sole "author" in most of my work, I believe strongly in collaboration (and I have worked with Paper Tiger) and facilitation. I also believe that we have no business speaking for others (I am not Native American). In these spots I hope to provide a chance for Native Americans in Seattle to articulate some of their concerns to the general audience. Collaboration can be tricky under the best of circumstances. When the collaboration involves people with different relations to the means of image production (possibilities: one party has a better grasp of the technology, its uses and implications, or the parties have different goals with respect to the art world or media community) -- not to mention people with , in FELIX's words, "different political agendas and cultural backgrounds" -- it can be really tricky.

I'll address the question of the relation to television by continuing to consider the Seattle project. Normally my work tends to be long in absolute time and in shot-length and as often as not to draw upon somewhat restricted discourses and strategies, including the predictable art-world irony. This project, however, isn't intended to foreground my own point of view but to bring forth some muted or buried narratives in the short history of Seattle -- a city that seems very white, at least figuratively speaking. In considering whether to adopt a format (defined by its length and by a certain urge toward narrativity) developed for advertisements and PSA's (public service announcements), I had to weigh the importance of having the project widely seen against the obvious fact that you can't say much or explain much in a minute or less. I also wanted to avoid the posturing that ads depend on, and their aggressively telegraphic speech. (Various political groups have repelled me with their ads that read just like ads, but with a "different" message. I also have a problem with political art that engages in sloganeering in lieu of argument or analysis.) Still, the people I'm working with would (naturally) like to have their voices heard by the widest number of people; one voiced the hope that it wouldn't just be on "educational TV" (PBS). If the people I'm working with were wielding the apparatus as well, the terms and consequently problems of collaboration would be quite different. but in this case of this particular project, the "window of broadcast opportunity" and of city funding opened only for me as an artist (in this case, a so-called video artist) and in control of (read: responsible for) the project. In other words, none of this would be happening otherwise. (In any case, so far no one has requested control over the final works, so no conflict has [yet] arisen.)

Representing the people I'm working with in a way that they would recognize and in a way that the stations will put on the air is my main aim here. I worry that I will tame and censor myself and mute or inadvertently distort the messages that the Native Americans wish to convey. I worry, as always, that television will swallow up the project. The point is that ten years ago I wouldn't have considered making something for the air (just as I wouldn't have then considered making the billboard works I subsequently made). But as videomakers and other artists have determined to enter into public discourse directly, the possibility has arisen of our reception by the larger public, thanks to the conditions I briefly sketched out earlier. Since audiences are made, not born, I think it's pretty important to try to keep harping away at the progressive agenda of inclusion (in cultural life, in political decision-making, in self determination) that I mentioned at the start.

Besides the ever-present fear of co-optation with without, a couple of other things worry me, with respect to questions of how we position ourselves: one is the temptation in the community of videomakers and artists to exclude or denigrate work made by people who seem closer to the majoritarian profile (and especially for tackling overtly the questions of positioning in a diverse cultural landscape), out of motives that include competition for scarce resources and rewards. Another is the tendency to focus on one thing at a time: to champion one marginalized identity and elide others. Reluctant institutions turn this into the strategy of divide and conquer. (Sometimes the issues granted most critical currency are those generated by academics and critics.) I'm concerned that class issues have fallen out of fashion. This creates serious misunderstandings or misrepresentations about who wields social power, and who has the greatest chance to capitalize on social goods, irrespective of other issues of identity.

The extreme signs of caution evidenced by the set of questions posed by the editors of FELIX point to the sensitivity of these issues. While we're all under attack from the forces of reaction, with the tacit support of the "tax paying public," we'd be wise to pull together. What isn't a good idea is to pull back from our commitments in order to win a broader acceptance. In fact, despite my suggestions that a broader public opening for our work exists, it's possible that smaller, more focused audiences make more sense. It certainly depends on what you're trying to accomplish with your work.