Protect Who?

In This "Coffin" It Is Impossible to Live a Biographical Life

The artists and activists in this issue of Plazm present work that confronts the law. They've developed their own strategies of self-defense to represent themselves and their communities, by-passing the expectations of mainstream culture.

We asked artist Martha Rosler to introduce these concerns and discuss her long-standing commitment to creating and distributing images and narratives that we are not supposed to see or hear.

Can we say that art represents–among other things–a combative expression of cultural self-defense? I'm not particularly talking about the commercialized and celebrated elements of culture but the cultural expressions of embattled subcultures before they are gobbled up by the mainstream, like rock n' roll, punk, and rap.

Oddly, despite the staggering dominance of corporate mass culture, there remains a subculture of artists with quasi-bohemian values (as ambivalent as this may suggest). Defense against what? Well, at present we are in the midst of a "culture war" initiated by the right wing of the Republican party (Patrick Buchanan is the stalking horse), the radical religious right (Pat Roberts fronted by schoolboy sidekick Ralph Reed), and engineered by think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

Certain cultural expressions and values are attacked, and artists, intellectuals, and stereotypical "Others," especially African Americans, gays and lesbians, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, women ("feminists") are scapegoated.

Wreckers are hard at work. Attacks in social support structures and on cultural institutions–part of the program of transferring wealth upward while dividing and conquering the diverse and relatively powerless groups below–are much more effective, more draconian, more openly cynical than during the "Reagan revolution" of the early 1980s. The retrograde politics of exclusion and divisiveness run counter to the expressed values of our art worlds, where a "progressive" agenda (though not under that name) still carries weight. I want to look at the field of video production, one of the arenas where you can still discern quite a lot of dissidence and agitation.

There are plenty of works critical of repressively hegemonic cultural values, including a growing number made by people ignored, stereotyped, or stigmatized in the larger culture. Changes set in motion by the growth of cable, the popularization of home VCRs and "camcorders," and the adaptation of independent-video techniques for music videos, film, and of course TV commercials have made the moves of artist (or independent) video more comprehensible to a wide public and opened more avenues for artist video to it. The visibility of non-broadcast 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 (from Israel, say, or the former Yugoslavia) in a way that newspapers have never used amateur photographs. The technically degraded video image has become an accepted sign of "real-life actualities," blowing the "poor technical quality" alibi that television stations used to use to reject independent productions.

A negative effect is videomakers' tendency to abandon "appropriation"–the critique of television through direct quotation–or even less direct types of television critique. Video may be shown more often in museums these days, but generally at the expense of political content–with the sometime exception of some works about the social marginalization of various groups, now thought to fall under the rubric "identity politics."

Video installations are constantly being promoted by art institutions: of course, these  are the most restrictive forms of video, hothouse creatures of questionable import. But we shouldn't criticize since, I suppose, they are pretty harmless. But they are hardware mad, and they garner the big bucks and the big hype. (In a recent issue of Newsweek, the reviewer, in praising a very high profile video artist and his very expensive, hardwareheavy, inpolitical work, reached way back into the past to compare it to my first video piece–still a popular work, but he used it as an example of the bad old days of video.) I'd rather see cheap media, such as that "pioneered" by groups like Paper Tiger Television, Deep Dish, and Not Channel Zero, not to mention low-power radio stations. The more the giant media conglomerates merge and globalize, the more we need to get small and localize–but also to globalize, via CD-roms and on the Internet, for example. But even media works need to be situated in real-world physical spaces sometimes. 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 purchase 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.

I think we need always to be supple in response to changing conditions. How do we do that? People have dreamed up lots of strategies for production and distribution. All kinds of groups, from labor unions and organizing groups to church groups, have used various reproducible media, including guerrilla theater, performances, demonstrations, flyers, radio, video cassette, audio cassette, fax, and on-line methods.

I'll use some of my own work to suggest one way that changes in the cultural landscape may drive changes in strategy. I've been working with Native Americans living in Seattle, using Hi-8 to produce one-minute TV "spots"–known as public service announcements, PSAs–about their "hidden histories." Although I'm generally the sole "author" in most of my work, I believe strongly in collaboration and facilitation.  But I also believe we have no business speaking for others, and I'm not Native American. Collaboration can be tricky under the best of circumstances. Because I   organized the video taping and the editing, and the people who were interviewed decided what to say, we had different relations to the means of image production, making the collaboration delicately poised. Inevitably, I have a better grasp of the technology, its uses and implications. Quite probably we have different goals with respect to the art world or  media community, and different perspectives and agendas. But I hope these spots have provided a chance for Native Americans in Seattle to articulate publicly some of their concerns.

Normally, my works tend to be long in absolute time and in shotlength and often draw on somewhat restricted discourses and artworld irony. This project, however, isn't intended to put forth my own point of view but to bring forward some muted or buried narratives in the short history of Seattle–a city that is very white in its power structure but very diverse in population. Should I adopt a format developed for ads and PSAs? I asked myself. 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.) Still, the people I'm working with would like to have their voices heard by the widest number of people; one told me he hoped it wouldn't just be on "educational TV."

In the case of this particular project, my proposal was sponsored by Seattle's art commission and therefore the "window of broadcast opportunity" and of city funding opened only for me, as an artist, in control of the project. Representing the people I'm working with in a way that they'd recognize and that stations will put on the air was my main goal. I proceeded with the project even though I worried I would tame and censor myself or mute or distort the messages that the Native Americans wish to convey. I worried, as always, that television would swallow up the project. Ten years ago I might not even have considered making something for the air. But since audiences are made, not born, I think it's pretty important to try to keep harping away at the progressive agenda of inclusion that I mentioned at the start. But it isn't a good idea to pull back from one's long-standing commitments in order to win a broader acceptance. In fact despite my suggestions that broader public opening for non-mainstream work exists, it's possible that smaller more focused audiences make more sense. It certainly depends on what you are trying to accomplish with your work.

When it came to actually putting together the individual one minute spots, I used the city's logo–a stylized Indian head meant to represent Chief Sealth, or Seattle–in each PSA. I also decided not to put my own name on the tapes. Gradually the Art Commission backed away from the project they had funded, and so far the works haven't been broadcast, though they've been shown in other settings. But the state of Washington, through its "percent for art" program, has bought a set of these spots for duplication and distribution to elementary and high schools. I had decided to leave my name off the screen, because otherwise the main continuity in the project would have been my name on every one minute spot. For the Washington State schools, however, I added a list of credits, including my name, at the end of the reel, so that the students viewing the work would realize it was the product of individuals rather than being corporately produced and, therefore, anonymous "cultural minutes," the kind of feel-good advertisements that bombard us about fifty million times a year.