Breaking the Spell: An Interface Review

Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas

By Beth Geglia
November/December 2017

I read most of Robé’s Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjason a couch in a DC WeWork. A friend of mine had a membership and routinely gave me access to the shared workspace, a place where young freelancers, consultants, startups, and NGO workers estranged from office spaces encounter some semblance of community by working silently next to one another and enjoying the occasional free happy hour, networking event, or music show. As I read, the walls around me displayed multicolored motivational posters, one with the word “HUSTLE”, another lining the wall across from me with the words “You are good, do better.” I mention the WeWork space because it is but one of many manifestations of a decollectivized, neoliberal work world, in which filmmakers, media strategists, and digital campaigners currently partake. In this neoliberal era where media work has joined the contours of the increasingly atomized “gig economy” (De Stefano 2015), and of an NGO-ized civil society resting evermore on contingent labor and self-branding, Robé calls on us to explore a history of alternative, anarchist-inflected media organizing strategies.Breaking the Spell, however, is as much a history of such media movements as it is a theoretical reflection on the changing nature of work, deindustrialization, neoliberalism, and the emergence of “new anarchism” (pp. 6).

The book begins by establishing the important role that media production takes in a neoliberal context. As capitalism seeks out new frontiers of accumulation, it increasingly encroaches on every aspect of life, even subjectivity itself. Thus, Robé approaches neoliberalism not as a set of pro-market policies but, at its core, as a remaking of the “self” under a capitalist vision. It is here where media activism, when done effectively, can deconstruct the neoliberal subjectivity imposed by corporate and mainstream media. Breaking the Spellmaps media activism onto the history of neoliberal transformation 1960s-present, including that of labor relations and the nature of work. This mapping is congruent with Robé’s argument that media production is itself labor, and therefore it can either mirror the dominant social relations of production of the time or resist them. Robé essentially defetishizesthe film, TV, and multimedia works he analyses by interrogating the race, class, gender, and power hierarchies embedded in the organization of their inception, production, distribution, and consumption. When viewed as a holistic process, we see that new subject formation takes place not just as the point of consumption (viewing), but that collective subjectivities can be fostered through every stage ofthe process. Taking a nuanced look at the various ideological sub-currents of anarchist-inflected social movements, Robé points to grey areas in which neoliberal ideology and new anarchism have dangerously overlapped. Thus he stresses the importance of critical socio-historical analysis of such anarchist practices in order to avoid the reproduction of neoliberal subjectivities. Breaking the Spell begins in the 1960s with Third Cinema, an “anticolonial politicized approach to filmmaking” (pp. 16) that emerged internationally in the 1960s and has since inspired generations of activist filmmakers. In Third Cinema, film was used to critique oppressive structures while converting the spectator audience into an agentive collective with newfound consciousness. Robé discusses Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile as foundational to the genre, as well as to Chile’s collective memory, class consciousness, and historical grappling post Pinochet dictatorship. He then moves to Detroit to tell the story of the making ofFinally Got the News(FGtN) by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. A fraught process between white activist filmmakers and black auto worker unionists complicates our understanding of Third Cinema, as Robé uses the example of FGtN to tease out the politics of participation, voice, and representation both in the movements surrounding these documentaries and the documentaries themselves. The book proceeds chronologically to examine influential anarchist-influenced media projects through a similarly critical lens. Robé traces the rise of “video guerrillas” who attempted to use low powered television to claim an alternative space within cable TV. He focuses on the groups Videofreex and Top Value Television (TVTV) to look at the anarchist-leaning decision making structures that coexisted with the appropriation of new technology, as well as the factors that influenced TVTV’s gradual absorption into commercial broadcast television. Robé then moves to the environmental and alter-globalization movement of the1990s/ 2000s. He links the rise of the internet as a platform for new decentralized media hubs with the systematic dismantling of alternative video in the 1980s, which stemmed from the Reagan administration’s defunding of public TV and the subsequent privatization and commodification of communication. He compares eco-video activists in the Pacific Northwest with Indymedia to look at how both groups used open-access websites to foster solidarity, while perhaps overvaluing the individual at the expense of collective process and collaboration. Particularly interesting is Robé’s chapter on ACT UP titled “Testing the Limits,” which explores the radical anti-AIDS campaigns of the 1980’s. Here, Robé shows how the combination of spectacle-based media and direct action as a protest tactic helped move the private domain, the body (and illness), to the social domain. Access to healthcare and state neglect became questions of life and death. By deploying their own media, anti-AIDS activists were able to effectively puncture mainstream coverage of the epidemic and highlight homophobia and racism as central to the inequalities in care. Meanwhile, the embodied use of direct action tactics challenged the media’s portrayal of HIV-inflicted bodies as sick, degenerate, and helpless. As Robé puts it:If we accept Autonomous Marxism’s belief that subjectivity itself became a key terrain of struggle as capitalism increasingly infringed upon it, AIDS video activism dramatically highlights the centrality of where bodies converge with the means of communication over such fights (pp. 123).In this discussion, Robé is able to celebrate the merits of spectacle-based media and consensus-based direct action while balancing this with a critique of “image events” that continues on through the rest of his case studies. Later, Robé laments how the low-resourced, rapid production of movement material risked feeding into a “riot porn” genre that fetishized confrontational tactics and rendered long-term organizing invisible. Ultimately this material energized only the left and failed to provide a counter-narrative to the broader public. As an alternative to that tendency toward self-satisfying, insular media, Robé discusses SmartMeme and a broader shift towards the production of viral internet content for mass consumption, although he ultimately criticizes such tactics for their “new age feel” (pp. 285), repurposing of corporate marketing tools, and lack of historical material analysis. Another recurring tension identified in Breaking the Spellis the use of horizontal structures and unpaid labor in theproduction of film. While rooted in anti-capitalist ideology, Robé admits that when these occurred, they often reproduced the privileges and hierarchies of access to participation from the outside world. For example, those with the means to engage in timeconsuming and unpaid media production were often white males. While groups often saw the use of unpaid labor as either a material necessity or a rejection of the non-profit industrial complex (reliance on grant funding), and the alienation of wage labor, Robé argues that such practices overlap with neoliberal trends toward increasingly unpaid work. He highlights how later models, such as Canada’s Media Co-op (MC) sought to remedy this dynamic by adopting an “own your media” mantra in which consumers becamestakeholders in their own alternative media and collectively sustained its production by hiring paid staff. However, the inability of the MC to provide fair and adequate compensation for its contributors ultimately contributed to its near-collapse.

Robé closes Breaking the Spell by highlighting the work of a series of contemporary media collectives, including Philadelphia’s network-based Media Mobilizing Project (MMP); Mobile Voices (VozMob) a mobile phone app developed for and with day laborers in Los Angeles; Outta Your Backpack Media, an Indigenous youth-led media organization in Arizona, and other groups that maintain a strong focus on skill-sharing and working-class capacity building. While not perfect, these groups provide examples where participation and access took precedent and were more effectively distributed across racial and economic lines. In Breaking the Spell, Robé provides a unique contribution to both social movement history and media studies by combining detailed analysis of the audio-visual material itself with an ethnographic analysis of those who made it. The case studies at times seem disjointed, and the reader could benefit from a stronger theoretical thread connecting them throughout. It is not until the final chapter, in discussinga more individualized media agent, the “video ninja” does Robé re-enter into a discussion of the merits and shortcomings of various strains of anarchist politics. Nonetheless, Breaking the Spellre-groups at the end to draw important conclusions to be considered by the world’s future media makers. First, he argues that we must interrogate the limitations of anarchist-inflected practices in achieving media production by and for marginalized and oppressed groups. Such organizing models fail to recognize the“significant amount of cultural, political, and economic capital required to engage in… consensus decision-making and aggressive direct action protests” (pp. 406). Likewise, more “lifestyle activism” forms of anarchist practices might feel exclusionary tothe communities being targeted for outreach, and women are often disenfranchised (work becomes gendered) when such spaces lack a feminist analysis. Second, Robé concludes that media activists must study past movements to weigh the importance of aesthetics versus content. He warns against a glorification of commercialized aesthetics, noting that these do not necessarily translate into mass distribution and are less easily produced by lower-resourced communities. Instead, activists should not discount or undervalue media as aninternaltool for movement education and networking. When we allow media to act as a central nervous system to our movements, it can foster solidarity, coalition-building, mutual support, and collective consciousness. Finally, Robé stresses the importance of process in media making over that of quality of output. As case studies have shown throughout, the process of organizing labor and resources around media production is itself a site of counter-hegemonic struggle, of individual and community empowerment, and of forging new subjectivities. Perhaps missing from the end of Robé’s long foray into the history of anarchist-inflected filmmaking as a counter power to neoliberalism is further discussion of new media movements’ reliance on social media sites for distribution. While touched upon in his discussion of Occupy’s shortcomings, Robé neglects an important point that he himself makes early on, and that is central to our understanding of neoliberal media consolidation. Beyond a simple concentration of mainstream media in few private hands, Robé notes that the proliferation of social media marks a transformative moment in the relationship between media and capitalism. He states:

Capital’s harnessing of profitability from subjectivity itself can be no better exemplified than by the rise of social media, where users become both content producers and consumers. Corporate entities provide platforms where users dedicate untold numbers of hours producing and consuming content, distributing information, and willfully disclosing critical personal information to third-party providers. Leisure and work conflate as production and consumption radically converge…” (pp. 10) We are left to ask how alternatively-produced media can be distributed and consumed outside of platforms that generate massive corporate profits and capture surplus value from the work of media activists. Breaking the Spellprovides an expansive and detailed history of media activism bound to interest and inspire anyone engaged in movement media today. This history demonstrates the rich diversity of tactics employed by collectives to respond to and organize against the particular political, economic, ideological, and technological configurations of the time. His work is not meant to provide definitive answers as to which strategies worked and which did not, nor propose a one-size fits all solution, but instead to interrogate each method, each form of organizing, against the backdrop of larger movement dynamics; gender, race, and class hierarchies; and capitalist modes of production. Beyond the quest for media strategies that are simply politically effective, Robé challenges movements to ask ourselves: how are we organizing media in line with anti-neoliberal praxis? Ultimately, Breaking the Spellprovides contemporary media warriors with tools to more deeply interrogate our current work. ReferencesRobé, Chris 2017. Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas. Oakland, CA: PM Press.DeStefano V., “The Rise of the ‘Just-in-Time Workforce’: On-Demand Work, Crowd Work, and Labour Protection in the ‘Gig-Economy’” Comparative Labor and Law Policy Journal, Forthcoming; Bocconi Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2682602. About the review authorBeth Geglia is a filmmaker and a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, where she researches new corporate enclaves in Honduras and incorporates documentary film into both research and activism. Prior, she studied documentary film at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. She is co-director of the feature length film Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garifuna Hospital, and has produced short films with grassroots groups in the U.S.and Central America. bgeglia

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