by Jaimie Baron
Visiting From Moment to Movement: Picturing Protest from the Kramlich Collection on the day Putin began his full-scale attack on Ukraine made the show, already timely, feel even more so. Curated by Susie Kantor and designed by UC Davis design undergrads overseen by Professor of Design Brett Snyder, the exhibition includes six video installations, each by a different artist, dealing with acts of government-sanctioned repression and/or resistance to it in various national or historical contexts. The exhibition website includes links to suggested readings, making this is not only an exhibition but also a form of experimental pedagogy from which there is much to learn.
Three of the pieces directly explore the uses of 20th and 21st-century media technologies and the increased visibility (and audibility) they offer. What have these technologies done to the exercise of power? Have they liberated us to reach greater human potentials or contributed to greater oppression? They’ve done both, of course, but the full social and psychological ramifications of photography, film, video and the internet are too great for any of us to ever fully understand. This recognition is woven throughout the show.
Dara Birnbaum’s Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1988-90 is a five-channel video installation with four channels of audio in which sound and image are sometimes synched, sometimes not. On one track, we hear a group of Taiwanese students singing “The Wound of History” in an act of solidarity. On others, we catch snippets of newscasters trying to convey events in real-time on June 4, 1989 when unarmed Chinese university students and workers, peacefully protesting in Beijing for free speech and freedom of the press, were mowed down in cold blood by police and soldiers under the command of the Chinese Communist Party. Birnbaum’s piece explores how viewers in the United States and elsewhere – even those who wanted to help the protestors – could hardly find out what was happening. As its minions began shooting students, the Chinese government cut off the televisual feed so the international community could not see. Break-In Transmission offers us an immersive experience of this desire to know (and possibly help) coupled with frustration at the fragmented, stuttering images, the piecemeal information and the jarring lack of context. Because the video monitors – mounted on periscopic posts hanging from the ceiling – face in different directions, it is impossible to take in the whole artwork, let alone the full scope of events that became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Standing within Birnbaum’s installation just after listening to frightened Ukrainian civilians talking about fighter jets flying overhead underscored for me, on the one hand, how much more information we have than in 1989 and, on the other, how it is still too little – nevermind whether the information we do get is accurate. Global solidarity of the people against the powerful escapes us, at least in part, because we cannot fully communicate with everyday people on other parts of the planet. Just think about the limited information many Chinese people have because of the government firewall. In the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party has practically wiped June 4 off the calendar.
In its agonizing incompleteness, Birnbaum’s piece also emphasizes the impossible task of journalists trying to report events occurring thousands of miles away from their audience. These miraculous technologies – television, satellites, the internet – may let us know something is happening. But they never offer a complete picture, let alone a direct way for us to help. Consequently, those on the receiving end of these transmissions are rendered simultaneously aware and impotent.
Where Birnbaum’s piece demonstrates the limits of mediated visibility, Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem (2018) shows how certain recorded images, despite efforts to contain them, become icons, sites around which people gather (physically or virtually) in awe. The images of Colin Kaepernick risking his NFL career to protest police shootings of unarmed Black men by kneeling on live television during the pre-game singing of the US national anthem were truly startling and awakening. The average viewership of an NFL game is reportedly 16.5 million, which does not include views on YouTube. Kaepernick’s original gesture was massively visible, and his first action led to other widely distributed acts of onscreen, nonviolent protest. Kaepernick harnessed the power of live television and his own body to stick his finger in the eye of those who take joy in watching Black men play football but are indifferent to the state’s continuous violence against its Black citizens.
To make this single-channel video, Ezawa took footage of Kaepernick and other football players kneeling, linking arms, and otherwise posing their bodies as a method of protest, and transformed them into beautiful watercolors which he then reanimated. Although the outlines of the figures onscreen barely move, the images constantly shimmer as the “paint density” varies, creating an effect of motion within stillness. No one moves, yet the space comes alive in protest. The soundtrack is a quiet instrumental version of The Star-Spangled Banner, only here the wordless anthem feels less like a jingoistic war song than a celebration of the actual ideals of participatory democracy. Ezawa turns the mandatory, televised spectacle of musical obedience – stand up and shut up! – against itself.
In contrast to Ezawa’s hopeful piece, Mikhael Subotzky’s CCTV (2010) offers a grim reminder of how cameras frequently enact a form of forced visibility on ordinary people. It begins with a black split-screen which slowly evolves into a grid of closed-circuit television recordings produced in South Africa in 2009 and 2010. Clearly, someone behind these cameras directs them to swivel and gleefully zoom in to catch people – mostly Black men and women – committing small crimes. Police, presumably alerted by camera operators, appear in each frame to arrest the perpetrators and then direct them to look into the camera. Ever since Alfonse Bertillion produced the first mug shots in the 1880s, police have
systematically used photography to control the least powerful members of their populations; now, they use video for the same purpose. Where Ezawa shows NFL protestors using television to their advantage, these small-time criminals have no such power. They are at the mercy of these cameras, which serve as prosthetics of police domination. When they look into the lens – at the police and at us – their sense of entrapment is palpable and contagious. It drives home the fact that we are all being watched in one way or another.
The other three pieces focus on the failures of democratic ideals. The United States and India, both democracies slouching toward dictatorship, have never been able to fully realize the liberatory promises implicit in the “rule of the people.” Nalini Malani’s Unity in Diversity (2003) is a single-channel video installed in a room whose mise-en-scène evokes a mid-20th century, middle-class Indian living room, replete with sofa, lamps, and framed photographs of Gandhi, Nehru and others. Reflecting on the 2002 riots in the Indian province of Gujarat in which at least 2,000 people – mostly women – were killed as Hindu nationalist government officials did nothing to stop the violence, this piece mourns the ideals of the newly independent India, established after the brutal British colonizers were finally driven out. The title refers to a post-independence slogan that sought to bring Indian citizens of different ethnicities and religions together under one national banner. The massacre in Gujarat is horrifying evidence of that vision’s dissolution.
Raja Ravi Varma’s 1889 painting Galaxy of Musicians, reproduced within Malani’s installation, shows eleven female musicians wearing clothing associated with different Indian ethnicities; but here their faces are overlaid with moving images, including those of the Gujarat riots and a laparoscopic surgery. It serves as the fundament of Malani’s piece whose soundtrack, in contrast to the painting’s hopeful allegory, begins with gunshots. Together, Varma’s painting and Malani’s video, create ghostly and ghastly superimpositions that nullify any implied harmonies. The piece ends with a written description of a barbaric crime – proving how little our fancy technologies have done to alter our species’ deep and violent tribalism.
That phenomenon is hardly unique to India under Narendra Modi. Shiva Amadi’s Marooned (2021) affectively visualizes the repercussions of Donald Trump’s 2016 law forbidding immigrants and refugees from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. In this watercolor animation, we see human figures carrying heavy boulders toward a rocky pier, attempting to build a bridge to an oil tanker floating offshore. The rich colors of the 5,172 paintings from which the animation is composed contrast jarringly with the sense of desperate, fruitless effort. Turning away refugees – innocent men, women and children forced to flee their homes by violent thugs – is ultimately just as murderous as gunning them down.
Yet, while the US government is sometimes fine with abandoning innocent people in a war zone, at other times it cannot leave happy people alone. Theaster Gates’ Dance of Malaga (2019), a single-channel video that combines a variety of representational modes, mourns the community of interracial families established on the island of Malaga off the coast of Maine in the 19th century, which the governor forcibly evacuated in 1912. The inhabitants’ crime: making the white race less pure. Gates’s poetic work combines choreographed dance performances with footage of existing traces of both the Malagan community and of racist paranoia about miscegenation to produce a testament to and elegy for this would-be paradise.
Despite its optimistic title, Moment to Movement is a pretty grim show, but it suits the grim reality we now inhabit. That these artists are motivated rather than dissuaded from making art testifies to their implicit belief in humanity and our capacity to learn and become better. These creative, empathetic artists would make far superior leaders than most of those we have now. The comedian-turned-statesman Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s imperiled president, is a perfect case in point. One can only imagine what the world might look like if we had more like him.
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About the author:
Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.
Photo credits: Installation views: Cleber Bonato; Dara Birnbaum: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery; Kota Ezawa: Kramlich Collection; Shiva Ahmadi: the artist and Haines Gallery; Mikhael Subotsky: Kramlich Collection; Theaster Gates: Kramlich Collection and Whitecube.