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by Ellen Spiro

Being mentally shell shocked during the events leading up to the Gulf Crisis, I sought the most immediate therapeutic device within reach: my camcorder. Sometimes the best way to deal with reality is to document it. So I charged up my arsenal of six batteries and began shooting reactions to the approaching war. I was far from alone in this endeavor. People all over the country were taking their camcorders into the streets to document local responses. And just as political organizing has promoted wakefulness in a country of zombies wrapt a trance of war, so too has video activism. Most notably, the Gulf Crisis TV Project, a joint venture between Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish Sattelite Network, created to send out a decentralized, passionate voice of opposition from all parts of the country.

The four-part series (a half hour each) promote activism and resisitence. Part I: War, Oil and Power addresses economic and environmental issues. Part II: Operation Dissidence exposes the role of the media in manufacturing consent and deconstructs television tactics. Part III: Out of the Sandtrap shows community- based grasssroots responses to the crisis and offers alternative solutions. Part IV: Bring the Troops Home highlights war resistors and offers specific tips on how to become a conscientious objector and resist the war. The series is an organizing tool. To produce the show, coordinators linked activist producers with anti-war organizers and community activists.

The project began with the usual Deep Dish process of calling for tapes from around the country, but in this project the level of response was unprecendented. The anti-war momentum that has been building steadily across the country, in big cities as well as in rural towns, is reflected and legitimized in the two hour, four-part series. Coordinators of the series edited kamikaze-style for three straight days, followed by a speedy satellite uplink, sending the program via sattelite across the country just before the beginning of the war. The role of public access television as a site where issued can be debated openly is crucial to the effectiveness of the show. The series was sent to cable stations all over the country where people created their own local wrap-arounds for the show, infusing the already decentralized series with a local focus.

Camcorder Commandos: The Gulf Crisis TV Project’s call for tapes resulted in over 100 submissions from 40 states. A guide, "How toTakeControl of Your TV Set," was sent out with the call for tapes, offering possibilites for practical uses of the show and ideas for local media initiatives. The vast participation of camcordists-- from the casual enthusiast to the well-versed video artist-- resulted in a chorus of images from ultra slick to cheap and dirty-- from places like Honolulu, Bloomington IN, Athens, OH, Castlewood, VA, Whitehall, WI and Ames, IA and many others. Martin Hallanger of Cambridge, MA submitted a chilling pixlevision video, with a deteriorated black and white image of himself wheezing and holding a sign saying: "I'm an Iraqi war vet. I have respiratory problems and I can't speak." In Athens, Ohio, Nan Merkyl, an elderly camcordist, shot a series of anti-war protests. Narrating off-camera, Merkyl humanizes her footage with commentary and questions. The project also received poetry, original rap music and experimental video works like "Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place," by Eric White. White’s contribution is filled with lines such as: "having a feast in the Middle East," "Let’s put the nation out of focus with aviation hocus pocus" and "Easter Europe’s finally free-- free as MTV."

Pretty boys bathing in the glow of t.v. objectivity: Since the build-up began, there have been a handful of personalities dominating the television screen spewing information directly from the Pentagon. Unlike the mainstream media’s tired use of the same guys spouting the same stuff, The Gulf Crisis TV Project had folks like media-bannned Daniel Ellsberg alternating with coal workers in Virginia and war resisitors in Honolulu as diverse spokespeople for the shows. At the start of the war the great need for alternative representations became even clearer, as military officials and tired commentators, Nintendo graphics and official censorship, rendered human realities absent from the antiseptic coverage.

Talking back/taking back TV: Distribution of the Gulf Crisis TV Project went beyond its goals when a PBS affiliate picked up the series and distributed it. This move surprised the producers as well as the viewers of the show who were shocked to see a radical view of the war, but as Cathy Scott, one of the coordinators, recognizes, "it’s taken something as drastic as a war to get community voices on PBS." Hopefully, it is the beginning of a movement toward the democratization of the media. Beyond PBS, the series, as with every Deep Dish series, expanded the network of public access users and local access groups distributing the project. Organizers set up a bicycle system, whereby one station would pass the tapes to the next, for stations that did not have sattelite dishes. In addition, the series acheived its goal of generating local programs in relation to the national show. In Iowa City a video wrap-around was created on a college campus with students from a black students organization commenting on the disproportionate number of black and latino people in the Gulf. A Cape Cod public access station accompanied the national show with an anti-war teach-in conducted by a Women’s Peace group. This war is to be generating a new from of protest organizing: the TV Teach-in, complete with call-in responses, live debates and intensive community programming. Using TV interactively to organize local actions and to generate opposition is becoming a real possibility for regular people to talk back to their TV set. Public access is a site where the things can be debated, where people can create their own dialogue. And by democratizing the media, perhaps we can democratize the country. The Gulf Crisis TV project embodies a sense of hope that individuals can be subjects of history. And making their own TV and contributing to alternative representations is the first step in that process.

As phone were ringing off the hook in the Paper Tiger TV office after the initial airings of the Gulf Crisis TV Project, the most profound and repeated responses were from people who were overjoyed to find that they were not alone in their feelings of opposition. One woman called from Gordonsville, Va whose entire town thought she was insane for putting a coffin with flag on it in her front yard. Harassed by neighbors and distressed by the war, she called Deep Dish, crying with joy that she was not alone. From places as far as the Virgin Islands, says Simone Farkondeh, an organizer of the project, "people were amazed that it was on channel 13 but noone was as amazed and we were. When they see the shows they begin to realize how restricted their viewing has been." Of course, there were some enraged reactions. One hysterical man called up and ranted about the obsenity of criticizing the news and the audacity of putting information into a non-rigid structure.

Passive censorship: a strange feeling came over me in the first week of the war; a feeling of hysteria was embracing me which I was receiving from my normally dormant TV set. The images and sounds filling my brain were cold and clinical, a slew of new vocabulary words all related to military weaponry, a series of macho spokesmen in uniform, sophisticated War logos and Nintendo graphics that seemed to be marketing the biggest product ever sold in my lifetime on TV: War. The slick graphics were being developed weeks before the war and TV producers were glad that Bush stayed on schedule because it made them look good. Now, entering the second week of the War as I write this, there are more products being marketed, most notably, Patriotism. The military, having sucked up a million low income youth looking to expand their horizons beyond McDonbald’s, is now advertising patriotism, and ironically, the images in these ads are virtual replicas of those that have filled news broadcasts since the build-up began: the Top Gun-thumbs-up-victorious-pilot shot, USA flags waving on top of aircraft and weapons of destruction silloueted against sunset backdrops that could double as a Club Med ad.

The Gulf Crisis TV Project, produced during the simultaneous arms build-up in the Gulf and the image build-up on TV, provides some visions of the hideous side of war, but if the upcoming episodes are to function as effective counter-propoganda, they must find a way to show the kinds of visual representations that are being censored from TV: body bags, massive destruction and human suffering-- in the U.S., Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Since they have no current plans to send camcorder crews to the Middle East, an effective way to do that would be to draw visual parallels to past wars.

At the same time, the most significant issues that have vanished from the News lately are the severe crisis’ at home that Bush would like us all to forget about: AIDS, homelessness, environmental devastation and a collapsing economy, and the list goes on... The AIDS activist movement, one of the most powerful movements begun in the Reagan Error, has armed itself with a level of media awareness vital to any contemporay activist movement. And everyone living in the AIDS crisis knows that the devastation must constantly be brought to the eyes and ears of the public. Hence, the slogan "Silence=Death." On January 22, 1991 several AIDS activists infiltrated the factories of centralized corporate representation: the major TV networks. One ACT UPer succeeded in breaking into Dan Rather’s video frame on the live six o’clock news shouting "fight AIDS, not Arabs" and "healthcare, not warfare." That historic moment of video intervention sent out a loud message of clever defiance and desperation. It said "the AIDS crisis is not over" loud and clear. The continuation of the Gulf Crisis TV Project will emphasize the the pressing social issues at home while encouraging media intervention into the War propoganda.