How we got here
It is not an overstatement to say that our world today is being shaped by changes, disruptions and challenges of seismic proportions. Climate crisis, environmental degradation, war and violence, hunger, poverty, migration crises and exploitative working conditions dominate the news. Add to this the Covid-19 pandemic, which has changed public life around the globe beyond recognition. The transformations experienced have created a wave of fear, a sense of powerlessness, and a bleak vision of the future. Many distrust both the political leaders and the media who are blamed for the cacophony of bad news. And this general distrust is not helped by the advent of artificial intelligence and the new possibilities to fake even videos deceptively and profoundly.
In this book, we take a retrospective look and identify a newly developed focus on the importance of community, solidarity and maintaining sociality, all of which prove crucial for addressing the challenges ahead. And while anxiety is often said to embody paralysing features, an argument could be made that anxiety – a basic human emotion, just like joy, lust and anger – also provides a strong motive for collective action. Because nobody wants to stay alone in the dark. It is this state of affairs that brought the three of us, as members of the Radical Film Network (RFN), together in the aim to engage with a wide range of questions. Our goal was to explore means and ways through which to overcome feelings of powerlessness and to collectively develop solutions for reclaiming our agency. As practitioners of radical film and digital media, we wanted to investigate the roles that various disciplines can play alongside one another.
In this endeavour, we were guided by questions such as whether radical film practices could help to understand the collapsing world. We also asked: Could radical media have a healing effect? And what does radical cultural practice look like in times like today, when everywhere we look even more challenges seem to lurk? Together with the contributors to this volume, we investigate a diverse cultural practice of audio-visual production, which counteracts the scenarios of our times. The book introduces strategies from around the world: it looks at audio-visual approaches that have made an impact and discusses how they could be useful in facilitating a new, hopefully better society.
The pieces gathered in this book encompass accounts of activist, artistic, ethnographic, and filmic practice as well as academic accounts that illuminate timely issues in exciting ways. Whether taking the format of an interview, an essay, a series of photographs, a poem, a map, a drawing or a manifesto, the contributions critically engage with the disproportionate problems that confront us and make clear that the path towards societal change is linked to a new understanding.
The book seeks to initiate debates and to inspire conversations. It gears towards the filmmaker and audio-visual practitioner as activists for whom film and digital media are weapons of choice and at the same time towards the academic, who is researching and debating contemporary film practises that act on and struggle with the conditions of our time. The camera and other digital means of visual production are analysed and debated as tools for engaging in a critical discourse on society as a whole. It explores views that are triggered by some of the following overarching questions: How can radical film and media help us to unlearn practices and challenge politics that disadvantage many? How to facilitate a process of decolonising educational and authoritative institutions, in order to (re)instate a notion of the public commons and Indigenous territories? How to make clear that treating planet earth as an infinite resource will ultimately lead to human self-destruction? How to shape archives to enable learning from former social struggles? How to challenge exploitation and dominant hierarchies in the areas of work, employment and institutional relations? How to use radical film as a means of political organisation? And how to collectively work out what autonomy, self-reliance, communality and solidarity might feel and look like in a society characterised by digital networks?
The sphere of media production has come a long way from the concept of “Gegenöffentlichkeit” (counter-public) to a common place where digital and social media have a huge impact on political opinion-making and have become an arena of spinning public perception. Documentaries are the traditional place of reflection about social and cultural issues. But they have possibly become too slow for the speed of contemporary media outlets and consumption. Today radical media production often finds its stage on platforms, which are algorithm-controlled. This is accompanied by many rules for how to make one’s contribution perform the best possible way. There is a magic pact stating what one should and should not do in order to get one’s numbers up. Audio-visual production has become an automatic act users execute everyday in order to fill the feed of their social media outlets. Radical Film implicitly confronts this automatism and dictatorial algorithm by insisting on forms which do not fit the mold. But how does this affect the way the content is communicated? What happens to ways of storytelling which do not function in an algorithmically controlled slot? Where is the criticism for these images? How to archive them and write their history?
Political activism and media production in the 1990s hosted a broad range of debates about the uses of video and digital media for enhancing political discussions and finding alternative ways of disseminating information outside of the mainstream media. There was a strong belief in counter-information and setting up alternative sources of information in order to inform and influence the public opinion. In the age of social media this belief has shifted to emphasise curation of the flood of content which is provided online, a task that becomes increasingly difficult. The speed and immense amount of information, daily scandals and issues raised by outlets everywhere make it hard to focus or even remember the backstory of the many injustices and political outrages one needs to understand in order to act as an emancipated and informed citizen. Not to mention the distraction provided by cat videos and toxic personalities – starlets, politicians and entrepreneurs alike – who come to fame by flooding the news streams with tawdry statements, covering up the relevant political content with empty chitter.
In 2013 a group of activists, academics, filmmakers and programmers involved in radical film culture in the UK met to discuss the ways in which they could work together. To support each other they founded the Radical Film Network. As an unfunded, voluntary initiative, the RFN is designed to operate in a decentralised way. There is no official membership status or application process – membership is simply a matter of joining the mailing list or being listed in the directory, and getting involved as much as one likes. Roughly once a year, members of the worldwide network will volunteer to host an RFN conference, usually in the city where they are based.
After its first inaugural Radical Film Network Conference in 2015 in Birmingham the network grew fast. In 2017 a call for help came through its email list, asking for volunteers to help to organize a conference in the village of Tolpuddle and Julia Lazarus went. Two years later in 2019 she and Ursula Böckler co-organized a first Radical Film Network Meeting in Berlin. The meeting brought together a range of agents working out of global radical film cultures, video activism movements and critical digital environments. The debates continued at the Transnational Radical Film Cultures Conference in June of the same year in Nottingham. This is where the idea for this book emerged. In 2020 Alexandra Weltz-Rombach joined the team and we sent out an open call for papers to all members of the Radical Film Network. The papers we received provide the backbone of this volume. In addition, we actively invited contributions from artists and filmmakers whose approach we felt were missing. In late August 2021, we organized a second Radical Film Network Meeting in Berlin, which allowed us to meet many of the contributors of the publication for the first time. Afterwards this publication took shape in a collective process of many discussions and pandemic video conferences. We hope that it will turn out to be a valuable basis to advance the discourse at the occasion of future meetings, conferences and festivals of the Radical Film Network.
The field of radical film, arts and digital media seems like a cake with many plums. And what is it that holds this cake together? To answer this question, we thought it would be helpful to provide a book, which one could hold and use as an open map to navigate various scenes of radical film and media production. The publication addresses a global readership with potentially different experiences and understandings of the subject matter presented. Contributions differ in opinions and views because the arguments, evidence and lived experiences put forth here represent a multitude of aspirations. These differences reinforce our belief and understanding that there cannot be settled facts on societal circumstances, media and technology – these relationships are constantly evolving.
To make this variety of approaches and opinion accessible to the readers, the contributions have been clustered into sections based on the issues debated. However, this is merely one way to access the book. Whether read individually or as part of the sections in which they appear, what all contributions have in common is a quest to experiment with ways of thinking, knowing, doing, seeing, sensing and valuing through film and media production.
Radical Film Network
Harun Farocki Institut