By Al Giordano
Authentic journalist Jesse Freeston, who you heard from on these pages last month, handled himself about as well as anyone could last weekend when police in Toronto punched him in the face and stole his camera microphone while he was covering protests at the G-20 summit. You can see it in the video, above. Calm, coherent and consistent: that’s how an authentic journalist, or any effective organizer or change-maker, rolls. And his boss, Paul Jay of The Real News, did some pretty good “press conference theater” in response to the incident, too.
I can understand why Jesse, a Canadian, went to report those events. They happened in his town. I can understand why a lot of folks went there, sincerely wanting to stand up and be counted against savage global capitalism and its consequences. The problem is, almost nobody who didn’t participate, especially those who only heard of the protests through the media, has any idea what the protests were about, or why the protesters were there.
The G-20 or “Group of 20” is made up of 20 of the governments with the 32 biggest economies. It includes the center-left governments of Argentina and Brazil, and also includes China. Here is a list of the participating nations. The G-20 group has no power to make laws, no real institutional power at all. Its resolutions are non-binding even among the signatory countries. Are the protests trying to say that countries should not meet with each other? Nobody quite says that, either.
I would posit that protests at events like this happen on autopilot, robotically, by many who are trying to relive the glory days of the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (where the stated goal was to keep the WTO meeting from happening, and in fact succeeded at causing its premature adjournment). There, hundreds of thousands of people, including significant participation from major labor unions like the Teamsters, converged around a clear demand and an attainable goal: The WTO shouldn’t meet, as it has binding power over policies in its member nations and that power is abused to benefit the haves against the have-nots.
Seattle 1999 was when the post-Cold War international left discovered it had a new move, like a boxer with a fast left hook. It knocked out its opponent, the WTO, and gave rise to a generation of new left celebrities and media makers, including Indymedia. Some have launched book-selling careers out of it. Good for them, but is that itself a goal of protests? Creating product and product makers? The rest of its legacy was mainly to create a trail of copy-cat actions with ever-diminishing results.
In April 2000, a repeat of the tactic was attempted in Washington DC to protest meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Only about 10,000 showed up and about 1,300 of those were arrested. In November 2000 the same agencies met in Prague, met by thousands of protesters, 400 of them arrested, who did actually cause the summit meeting to fold its tent early. In January 2001, many of the same protesters headed to Davos, Switzerland, to protest the World Economic Forum (like the G-20, a meeting without statutory authority over anyone anywhere). Their goal, if there was one, wasn’t clear and they had no tangible impact on the conference of world business and government leaders. None, whatsoever.
This dance – think of the consequences for a boxer who keeps using the same left hook with every punch, but eventually his opponents figure it out and know exactly how to beat him – continued through Quebec City’s Summit of the Americas and the European Union’s Gothenberg, Sweden meeting in 2001, to the World Trade Organization summit in Cancun in 2003, so on and so forth, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
In general, the size of these summit protests grow smaller and smaller, the tactics do not significantly change, the level of planning and training by participants doesn’t rise to that which went into Seattle 1999… and it shows, again and again, in the paltry results.
So what is left of these summit protests? The majority of participants always march peacefully, but many get arrested and beat up by cops who use the presence of a smaller gruposcule – often referred to as the “Black Bloc” or those “using Black Bloc tactics” – as their pretext to arrest and use preemptive state violence against all. The size of the “Black Bloc” contingent, of those who typically go on a spree of breaking windows of corporate chain stores and banks, hasn’t grown, but as the size of all other sectors steadily decreased, they take on a bigger slice of the pie of what little media attention is still paid to these yawningly predictable events.
And then there is another sector I’ll call the “summit hoppers.” These are protesters with enough expendable cash (or are trust fund or parent supported) to jet hop from summit city to summit city to join each protest. Some of them even do creative, laudible things – marching bands or daredevil banner hangers – but their creativity gets typically lost in the teargas smoke and sensational media coverage of the accompanying riot porn.
And just as typically, as in Cancun 2003, local movements and organizers are left holding the bag, no better organized than before. They basically get played by the out-of-towners who use their cities as a weekend stage for their own attention-seeking. It reminds me of Kurt Tucholsky’s 1920 poem about Berlin theater director Max Reinhardt’s play, Danton:
Act Three was great in Reinhardt’s play—
Six-hundred extras milling
Listen to what the critics say!
All Berlin finds it thrilling.
But in the whole affair I see
A parable, if you ask me
“Revolution!” the People howls and cries
“Freedom, that’s what we’re needing!”
We’ve needed it for centuries—
our arteries are bleeding.
The stage is shaking. The audience rock.
The whole thing is over by nine o’clock.
So what is left from these summit-hopping protests, beyond the tons of garbage and reaction that local movements have to pick up afterwards? Some brief media stories about violence – by police or by protesters, whether against people or merely against property, you can’t ever count on the mass media to distinguish between the two, and you ought to know better in advance that that will be the case – is about all that is left over when the show has packed up and gone. Nobody outside the event's own protagonists knows what the protest was about, or why it was done.
And then you get the occasional well-done news story, like that, above, by Jesse Freeston, about police violence against reporters or peaceful civilians. Ideally, that at least says “police bad, protesters good” (as if that is enough a reason to hold a protest at all, since that message only resonates with those that already have that predisposition), but it doesn’t really say anything new or inspiring. It doesn't change the game or any social dynamic at all.
Yet it turns out the police aren’t the only ones attending these affairs who are attacking members of the independent media:
The ones dressed in black and masks are those that either refer to themselves or are tagged by others as “Black Bloc,” and you can see at 1:23 minutes into the video that they’re going after the independent media, too. Their chant of “Who’s streets? Our streets!” thus becomes a mirror image of what the State is saying through its police forces: We own these streets and nobody else does! These events predictably become spats of bullying and thuggery on both sides of the barricades: and that makes the police happy, so happy, they in fact fertilize it with their own infiltrators and agents provocateur to make sure it happens.
At two minutes into the video, you can see how the “Black Bloc” contingent falls hook, line and sinker for the bait left to them by police agencies, who conveniently left unprotected police cars exactly along the route of their protest. Mouth meet hook: The protesters – the ones in these images are, predictably, predominantly male and young – attack and eventually set fire to the police cars. And this becomes both a defining image for the entire protest action and an easy talking point for the State to paint everyone as part of an undesirable and scary (to the general public) horde.
Does anybody really think that police agencies would have left unguarded vehicles in that path if not to get that desired image onto the evening news? And the “Black Bloc” dupes fell for it! Who, among the working class and poor, would follow these white upper class fools anywhere? What separates them from any rank-and-file pyromaniac? That they attach a cause to their attempted rampage? Well, what is that cause? “Whose streets? Our streets”? Clearly they mean theirs and not “ours” in the sense that the streets belong to all the people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be pushing and threatening the people’s own cameras away. If those guys ever did gain power, they would be as violent and bullying as those that have it now. And that is evident to most members of the public who refrain from joining in such protests even when we agree with the overall causes expressed.
It is already well established that Canadian authorities (and those of other nations) implant undercover agents – dressing them in “Black Bloc” and other stereotypical protest uniforms - to whip up the other protesters into committing acts of vandalism and sometimes even violence to rob the protests of moral authority and allow the cops a free pass on their own violence.
The “Black Bloc” practitioners have become the moral equivalent of cops, and just as ugly and bullying. And, as is proved, some of them are actually cops! And there is no way to tell them apart.
After their vandalism sprees, the Black Blockers then shed their black masks and clothes and hide among the rest of the peaceful protesters. That also reveals them to be cowards. They only deploy these tactics when they can hide under the skirt of a larger group of people. If they earnestly believe that smashing windows and tussling with police is such a revolutionary act, why don’t they ever do it on their own? Worse, they are wrecking the very good name of anarchism and anarchists by behaving in these decidedly anti-anarchist ways! Authentic anarchists are among the most alarmed by the negative impact of their parasitical actions on events that are organized by people who are not them, because it defines "anarchism" as "violent" (and also as "stupid") when anarchism (which embraces, also, anarcho-syndicalists and also anarcho-pacifists who see the State as a form of violence) is about self-management, not about hitching one's wagon to a star that someone else organized.
Throughout history there have been guerrilla insurgencies or groups that used what they called "revolutionary violence" to forward their goals, and whether one agrees or not with their tactics, one can admire that they did have courage. But the Weather Underground or the Latin American guerrilla organizations or other such projects never inflicted their actions on the larger protests of broader coalitions. Not once! The "Black Bloc" types clearly don't have that same level of bravery, planning, training or intelligence. That's what makes them cowards while other armed insurgencies were not.
In the end, the repetitive nature of this story about summit actions makes the majority of protesters, who are peaceful, and the organizations that got them there, dupes as much as the comparatively few assholes with window-breaking fetishes. It is now totally predictable and known in advance that those types will show up and do the same things they always do. And yet the larger coalition does nothing to denounce or separate itself from the premeditated macho tantrums of the few. The summit hopping actions have disregarded all the tools – such as nonviolence training sessions – that have distinguished other more successful movements throughout history from the recent series of failed summit actions, to which Toronto June 2010 becomes just another statistic.
We don’t send reporters to cover summit protests anymore. We already know what will happen in advance, and so does everyone else. At Narco News, we still report, time and time again, on meaningful protests and movements and community organizers and others that actually get stuff done and win battles. But we’ve had it with the summit protest genre. Stick a fork in it. It's done. We now practice non-cooperation with it. We have withdrawn our participation in their boring mirror of the spectacle, at least until some folks somewhere organize one that plans in advance to train and promote a shared action plan and discipline that is designed to have a better impact on human events and history than this sorry trail of repetition.
And to think: At least twice in recent months, in the same city of Toronto, there were two creative actions – neither of them “protests,” per se – that were designed, and succeeded, to win over hearts and minds and public support. They involved planning, discipline and a lot more fun than the tired summit protests offer, and they show us a possible path toward a new kind of protest that, rather than provoking automatic police repression, sneaks up on society with stealth and then disappears quickly avoiding any physical confrontation at all.
On April 29, 2010, students of Canada’s National Ballet Schools held a “flash mob” action at the Eaton Centre Mall in Toronto. Watch it while imagining had the G-20 protesters organized something similar and how different and better the impact would have been:
But they’re professionals, you say? Well, sure, they’ve taken some dance classes anyway. But here’s another flash mob dance action from 2009 from the same shopping mall, this one by amateurs, many of them kids, whose cause was to remember a young woman who died of cancer:
How much training did those dancing novices have? Only six hours! So don’t tell me that we ordinary people can’t do extraordinary actions with a little bit of planning and discipline! The flash mob phenomenon has already proved the case otherwise.
Add a coherent political message, banners, leaflets, a dance tune that resonates with the message, and such to a dancing musical flash mob like these and you have the seeds of a new, more effective, kind of protest than the tired old marching around in circles of the last century that has ceased to win any cause for anyone. If you want media coverage for it, video it and send it out, or plant a few sympathetic collaborators from inside the commercial media to have their cameras there for the scoop.
Organize something like that, and we will come, report, film, and make it known to the world in multiple languages. But “no thanks” if you want us to cover another tired summit-hopping action using the same stale left hook that the enemy already knows how to easily knock out.
One last thing: If you want to defend the actions of the “Black Bloc” or the effectiveness of the Summit Actions that tolerate them, here is the price of admission to the comments section here, and it should be real easy for anyone to do: Write one sentence – that is all, just one – that tells us what the message of the Toronto G-20 protest was. If it doesn’t fit into one sentence, it is not a message worthy of a protest. Then tell us how that protest accomplished advancing the cause of that message.
Maybe it is clear to one or more of you out there. But to the rest of the people of the world, whatever the Toronto summit protest message was, it didn’t reach us, or make anyone else care about it. And that is precisely the definition of a failed action that accomplished nothing but occupying the hours, resources, and budgets of all those who traveled to them in lieu of organizing something real at home.
Update: Somehow I missed this when it came out last year, but authentic journalist Jill Freidberg (documentary filmmaking group director at the Narco News J-School and co-director of the documentary, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, about the 1999 Seattle protests) produced a multipart radio series on the tenth anniversary of the December 1999 Seattle actions that shows where so many of the participants then went: into community organizing...
Part I: Seattle, Ten Years Later
Part II: Race and Mass Demonstrations
Part IV: Indymedia, Ten Years After
So it is fair to say that a positive legacy of Seattle 1999 is how many of its participants then moved into organizing and new, more diverse, strategies and tactics; not everyone kept clicking "replay"!
By Al Giordano
As Jill Freidberg, dean of the documentary filmmaking department at the 2010 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism mentions below, there was some understandable skepticism before February’s boot camp, er, session started that a group of people from different lands and languages, most of whom had not worked together before, could produce a meaningful documentary film in just ten or eleven days.
I just smiled, with the knowledge that we’d already done it before, in Bolivia back in 2004, when the j-school documentary team planned, shot and produced Chew on This: For Us, Coca Is Life, in just ten days. It is a work that, six years later, not only withstands the test of time, but also added its grain of sand to push big changes in Bolivia. (Evo Morales, for example, went from union leader, member of Congress and then-professor of the School of Authentic Journalism – where he was also a volunteer advisor to our film - to becoming president of his country 18 months later, and reversed the government policies that oppressed the subjects of that film.)
That 2004 ten-day documentary was a little over ten minutes long, and we put it on the Internet before YouTube existed. Then Narco News webmaster Dan Feder created an entire online platform for it, from raw Internet code. It filled me with enough faith in our students and professors, and enough pride in the horizontal work model of the j-school, to never doubt for a moment that the 2010 documentary filmmaking group would be able to meet and exceed the standards set by that pioneering video.
At 15:34 seconds, Where Are the Maya? will, in the same spirit, put a struggle ignored by the national and international media on a somewhat bigger stage (and DVD copies of it will also be delivered, as before, to the local people and organizations whose voices, faces, words and homes are seen in it, so that they may use it as an organizing tool in their struggles).
It was a gargantuan task, and it meets every standard that I consider to mark excellence. I asked team leader and cutting-edge documentary filmmaker Jill Irene Freidberg to pen a few words about the process by which the film you see, above, was made. Jill writes:
"When Al asked me to join the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism to ‘lead’ the documentary team as a ‘professor,’ I balked. Knowing how to make a documentary is one thing; teaching others how to make a documentary is something else altogether. But Greg Berger assured me that there would be a lot of overlap, at this j-school, between ‘professor’ and ‘student.’
“He was right. And that’s why we were able to make a movie.
“There were ‘students,’ like Edwin Reed-Sanchez, Marine Lormant Sebag, and Amanda Huerta Morán, who already had plenty of video production under their belts before j-school started; ‘students’ like Edwin Alvarez, who had never made a documentary, but who contributed a wealth of experience in leadership and community organizing; a ‘student” like Ter García who came to j-school with very little hands on video experience, but after years of daily newspaper reporting in Spain sure knew how to pull a story together. There were also ‘professors’ like Quetzal Belmont, Andrew Stelzer and Vanessa Ortíz who brought yet other skills and talents (from investigative reporting, interviewing, audio to extensive knowledge of community organizing dynamics) and hard work to the team.
“J-school took place in three different locations, across the Yucatan Peninsula, over the course of eleven short days. Making a documentary, in less than two weeks, in three locations, in two languages, is not an easy task. Early on, a consensus emerged that we wanted to focus our lens on the contrast between tourism and the reality of the people who live and work in the shadow of tourism. But with so little knowledge about the region, its history and context, narrowing the scope of our focus seemed like a daunting task. It was French journalist in Mexico Anne Vigna who, over beer and cigarettes, on the ‘smoking bus’ from Puerto Morelos to Merida, pointed us in the right direction with a wealth of contacts and suggestions, putting us in touch with the courageous people of Colonia Maracuyá and the folks at the Tzolk’in Center for Culture and Ecology."
Everyone should know that I - as the School's director - didn’t always make it easy for the documentary film group at the 2010 j-school. They wanted, needed and kept pushing and organizing for more time to work on it. I insisted that they could use the three or four hours a day of "free time," usually in the afternoons, and plus the hour or two of daylight at dawn, but that everybody still had to attend the four hours of morning plenary sessions and the nighttime plenaries and events as well (half the afternoons were devoted to work groups – a total of 24 hours in all out of an original 27 planned).
Members of the documentary filmmaking workshop at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, left to right: Andrew Stelzer, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant, Edwin Reed-Sanchez, editing video through the night in team leader Jill Freidberg's hotel room-turned-work studio in Playa del Carmen. Photo DR 2010 Jill Freidberg.
As Jill mentions, they had some good local support, from the authentic journalists in the state's biggest newspaper, Por Esto!, its publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, its state editor Renán Castro Madera, and its Playa del Carmen bureau chief Manuel Chuc. Our old friends who we filmed back in 2006 with the Other Journalism with Other Campaign from the Tzol'kin Center for Culture and Ecology and other organizations did yeoman's work introducing the documentary film team to the local people in struggle. Anne Vigna, Natalia Viana and other members of the 2010 School's investigative journalism group did everything the documentary group asked of them, too. When the documentary group needed a van to go filming in Cancún, Mercedes Osuna (who has a special message for Narco News readers today) took the wheel. This team goes down in the j-school annals as 11 on a scale of 10.
To have watched, nursing my first coffee, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant and Ter García marching out of our Playa del Carmen campus at six a.m. one morning, having recruited Mercedes Osuna as their early morning driver, to film a construction site (“we’re architecture students,” the authentic journalists pleaded with the site foreman, “can we film you doing your work?” - they had him at "we"), tripods and cameras in hand, filled with pep and vigor, hope and pride in their work, and new lifelong friendships, was a memorable first-of-the-day moment that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Nor their beaming smiles when they returned at 9 a.m. with the footage they had gone hunting to get, and the stories of how they got it.
The documentary film group didn’t stop when the School “ended” on February 13, either. Jill, Ter, Marine, Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Quetzal, along with Narco News' Spanish language editor Fernando León Romero, turned my apartment, “somewhere in América,” into a video editing studio for two weeks after the school, and I did my best to stay out of their way and just keep them in food and, a good number of them, in cigarettes. One night I came home to find the walls of my house covered with notes on pieces of paper, images, and notes atop those notes, like a Criminal Minds TV show war room. They also took over my House M.D. white board for the script timeline. Ter returned to the Yucatán peninsula to get more source materials as did Quetzal to film a few more shots of B-roll. After that, collaborating with each other long distance, they handed the draft edit, script and materials off to Jill - la maestra - to put on the finishing touches, and each and every one of them, I’m certain, knows that this documentary film happened through their creativity and labor, and is theirs as well as it belongs to the good people they interviewed in it.
I couldn’t be happier with the result. Really. You could knock me over with a feather. May the question this documentary poses go “viral” (and auténticos, you know what to do, embed this in your social media feisbuk pages, tweets, blogs and email lists):
Where Are the Maya? Where are they in the tourist Meccas of Cancún and Playa del Carmen that, day in, day out, exploit the name and the descendants of that beautiful historic peninsula whose indigenous peoples, monuments and cultures have awed the world time and time again, to be left in the dirt, to fend for themselves against greedy men, companies and governments of brutal, violent Power.
This is a documentary about a situation that cries out for justice and correction, a documentary that emboldens and comforts the inflicted to organize for it, and that inflicts the comfortable who stand in the way of that justice being made. And as another blessed consequence, I'm sure you’ll be hearing more from the members of the documentary filmmaking group of the 2010 J-School, almost all of whom will be invited back, if we’re able to do the School again in 2011, as “professors,” as Jill (excellent job, and a salute, comandanta) likes to put in quotes.
By Al Giordano
A wonderful essay is circulating by Alain de Botton in City magazine (I came across it via Andrew Sullivan), titled, On Distraction. In just 333 words, de Botton captures one of the central problems of this present moment in history:
“One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.
“The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.”
De Botton – who has an interesting project in London called The School of Life - recommends “diets” or “fasts” of the mind, which may or may not work to alleviate such alienation depending on the individual, but do not address the larger societal problems described. Plus, the counsel sounds a little bit too much like a “self help book” prescription (and the constant overdose of media stimulation has different effects on different minds: not all suffer from bloated obesity) when his analysis can also serve as a trampoline with which we can also jump toward some additional inquiries and ideas.
Fourteen years ago I wrote a kind of manual and manifesto about arming ourselves to fight the “24-hours-a-day war between Media and Self,” and in recent months I’ve picked back up the unfinished project of that work, The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media, dusted it off, and with other collaborators have set parts of it into praxis again in the realm of daily life (which especially includes what happens away from the Internet and other screens). Back then, a lot of the conclusions and ideas put forward in that document were a lot less popular and a lot less easily understood than they are now, at this present moment that de Botton describes so well. Today, there is an emerging and wide societal consensus on many of them. History has been kind to that once inconvenient analysis of “media” as the central problem of our era.
What I have often smacked down from this corner as “the poutrage of the week” and the panicked Chicken Little behavior of those who follow the commercial media’s constant feedbag of crisis and attention-seeking, is really, all of it, a consequence of the harms that de Botton describes. Like domesticated oxen, the population is yanked from media stoked crisis to crisis, all of which carry a whiff of apocalypse: an oil gusher in the Gulf now comes with underwater 24-hour live stream cameras, all available online and to TV networks, as experts – real and invented – jump onto our screens to tell us their version of what is happening. “We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture,” says de Botton, “and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.” A few weeks later comes Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla (the Middle East being, for many, a Pavlov signifier for “apocalypse” and thus an easy ruse for the media to get all sides drooling and barking according to an age-old script) and the cycle starts anew. And next week or the following week, when fatigue sets in on those obsessions, it will be something else altogether.
De Botton describes the debilitating effect of all this crisis-mongering on the media consumer. But we had also better study what it does to the media worker – not just journalists, per se, but communicators and artists of all kinds – who are now reduced to typing monkeys that have to go out and find those “instant experts” or cram to be able to at least play them on TV, or on a blog, or any other media. You’re expected to write or talk or shout about every crisis of the week, so you - I'm talking to you, fellow and sister media workers! - run to Wikipedia and the rest of the online library to pull up some factoids and buzzwords that fool the crowd into thinking the reporter or communicator really knows what he and she are writing or talking about. The formulaic nature of this kind of frenetic activity at work stations is killing so much of the creativity of the formerly “creative class”!
The bigger crisis of our time is, thus, Power's need to create constant crises, generated first and foremost by the commercial media, all competing for our dwindling hours of free time and attention span, and exacerbated by every kind of interest group, advertiser, opportunist, politician, "activist," aspiring tyrant or con artist who know that a person who perceives himself or his community or his world in crisis can be sold all kinds of products and ideologies to serve the salesman. When we “lose our heads” we are easy prey for the predators.
The more I live the more I keep concluding that we, as a society, as a public, need a kind of intervention or vaccine that inoculates us to panic and crises (or that at least arms us to deal with perceived crises with a methodology very different than that of running in circles, screaming and shouting, or the opportunist's impulse to make money or fame out of them). Some weapons available come with creating a better show outside of the crises that instead of fostering panic interrupt the spiral-of-doom with a smile, a joke, a song, a dance, a creation, those surprises that remind everyone – participant and spectator – that nobody is, or needs to be, alone in our “24 hours-a-day war between Media and Self.”
You can see in the recent letters from Jesse Freeston and Edwin Álvarez and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours – and you’ll be receiving more such letters from others soon – about their experience at the School of Authentic Journalism in February. That’s one tool that, thanks to your support, is changing lives and inoculating communicators to impede the process by which most become typing monkeys and crisis junkies. To revive a free press we need to first revive the existence of free pressmen and presswomen!
But I’m also thinking a lot these days that in addition to the vital work of preserving and expanding an authentically creative class, one communicator or authentic journalist at a time, that we need to be plotting such interventions on bigger and bigger levels: the in the terrains of the home, the neighborhood, the community, the city, the country, the region, the world: A reopening of the Situationist project of “creating situations” that awaken the most powerful human instinct there is: the will to live, not just to survive, but the will to pleasure. Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct.
As a graffito from that project said, “We will have good masters as soon as everyone is their own.” To resist the siren call of panic and crisis we need to rise up an army of warriors skilled at fighting that 24-hours-a-day war against the commercial media-imposed crisis mentality.
So if I’m not always typing about whatever the rest of the media and its junkies shout is the crisis of the day, it’s not out of sloth or cowardice (usually in the cases when some asshole says “you’re censoring the story,” it is precisely when a thousand other typing monkeys are addressing that supposed crisis furiously anyway, so why bother adding to the noise?). The accusation of fear always comes, anyway, from those who have taken less physical and personal risk for their shouted beliefs in an entire lifetime than I've taken to report a great many single stories. It’s that there are other, more compelling, games afoot.
Some, like the ongoing work of the School of Authentic Journalism, we update you about all the time. Others are still being gestated to birth. It’s always hard to know, in advance, when an unfamiliar or new kind of fruit will be ripe. But when you’ve been to the banquet already, and you can detect the wafting scents from the kitchen sent out like clues and hints, you know that the chefs are busy, and you are going to enjoy the meals to come.
By Al Giordano
“The political climate that we live under says that diverse people from different strata of society, from different cultural orientations, would not all be together in the same room at the same time sharing a similar experience together. The political climate that we live under is divisive. It’s designed that way. It only reinforces the extremes in difference between us. And yes, while we are all very different from each other, we are overwhelmingly similar.
“There are lesbians in this room; there are gay men in this room; there are heterosexuals in this room; there are bisexual people in this room, are there not? There are transsexual people, asexual people. There are Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics in this room. There are Asians in this room. There are Blacks in this room. There are Hispanics in this room. There are Middle Easterners in this room. There are WASPs in this room. There is every kind of ethnic group in this room. There are trendy people in this room. There are people over fifty in this room. There are people over sixty, over seventy in this room. There are people under twenty-five in this room. There are at least five kinds of gay men in this room, and they don’t agree with each other about anything! There are people in this room who don’t identify with any particular group in this room.”
- Penny Arcade, early 1990s
During an April visit to New York I had the chance to see The Penny Arcade Experience at a club called the Poisson Rouge, which now fills the hallowed space of the old Village Gate. The original Gate marquee still stands, an historic landmark, on the corner of the beige brick building at Bleecker and Thompson Streets. It eternally announces the last two shows that appeared at that legendary forum when Art d’Lugoff had to close its doors in 1993: one by Jacques Brel and the other was Arcade’s long-running (more than 1,500 performances) Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Everything I have always loved about Penny Arcade’s performances was as vibrant and alive as ever on that April 2010 night in New York, starting with Penny – nee Susana Ventura, the girl from the Italian immigrant family in the mill town of New Britain, Connecticut who ran away to New York as a teen and soon landed as Andy Warhol’s youngest superstar – a tornado of truth-telling, humor, timing and authenticity. The male and female erotic dancers, actors and performers, video camerapersons and the lighting-sound-production-dramaturgy team on and off stage included a core group of the same talents that were collaborating with Penny on her works back in 1996 and 1997, when I last attended a Penny Arcade show: dramaturge Steve Zehentner, stage manager Lorie E. Said, dancer Kenny Angel Davis, videographers Dean Lance and Rick Jurgens. Hanging on to a team for 14 years and more (most go farther back than that) for a project of independent anything is itself a rare accomplishment, especially in the ego-heavy world of show biz, whether a project is economically flush or it is underground and often struggling.
There was also something new in the Arcade arsenal in 2010: Merchandise. For decades, Penny and her collaborators have videotaped most of her public performances. Like a sports team, they watch the videos after each “game” both to evaluate the play and to capture the considerable improvised and ad-libbed moments, the best of which get worked into future performances in an ever-evolving show. Back then, the video was about developing and improving the work (“In the 80s I was antiproduct,” Arcade has said, “that was my stance.”) Now, entering or leaving Penny’s shows, the audience can take home DVDs of a 1991 performance of La Miseria, the 1995 An Evening with Penny Arcade & Quentin Crisp, a 1999 on stage filming of Bad Reputation and a 2009 revival of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Also new, a book: Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (2009, Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press), based on transcripts of Arcade’s shows, an interview with Penny by editor Chris Kraus, and essays about her work by Stephen Bottoms, Ken Bernard, Sarah Schulman and Steve Zehentner.
I took those DVDs and the book south of the border where in recent weeks some of us – students and professors of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, along with friendly artists, performers, singers, photographers, designers, troublemakers and such - have gathered weekly to watch, read and discuss together what we see in those and other works of varied indole.
My j-school colleagues have repeatedly remarked things like, “Al! Now I know where the School of Authentic Journalism came from!” I had much the same thought seeing these works 13 years after the year I was immersed in and around Arcade’s laboratory (we lived under the same Lower East Side roof from about May ’96 to May ’97, but not having enough gray hair yet for memoirs, that’s really all the disclosure required for now; April was the first time in a dozen years we had spoken). Penny was then busy developing, rehearsing and performing Bad Reputation, a powerful show about “bad girls,” violence, rape, and resistance, among other things. It was, for me, the year of my big inquiry (what others probably called an early mid-life crisis) in which, having left commercial journalism, I worked at a local anarchist bookstore (largely out of motive to read everything on the shelves for free), and co-hosted, with Arcade, Radio Free New York on a pirate radio station every Friday evening. There, we held long on-air conversations with the likes of Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of The Living Theater, Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvere Lotringer, writers Peter Lamborne Wilson a.k.a. Hakim Bey and the late Robert Beers (also an actor and film curator at MOMA), musicians Jayne County, Tuli Kupferberg, Bebe Buell and Coyote Shivers, the poet Ira Cohen, former New York School Board president Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, and others who had lived and helped form the secret history of radical New York over previous decades.
I confess that, during that heady year on the Lower East Side, I thought my inquiry – an attempt to study and figure out where I really do stand in society and its politics; to unlearn myself of years of presumptions conditioned by staffing commercial media and “go back to the drawing board” anew – was “out there” on the bookshelves and in the pirate radio studio. In retrospect, the more highly advanced revolutionary project was happening right under my nose, in what Penny and her collaborators were building. I was sloganeering politically about “refusing mediation” and trying to understand Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “the war machine outside the state.” Arcade was doing it. Full circle, that experience turns out to have been a defining influence on all that I’ve done since.
“I talk directly to the audience,” Arcade said in the book’s 2008 interview by Chris Kraus. “I started doing it because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene. I understood that my relationship was with the audience, that it wasn’t with arts administrators, that it wasn’t with the press, and that the audience and I were actually treated the same way by the press and by the arts administrators. They thought we were stupid and didn’t know anything, and so I developed that talking to the audience, and just got braver and braver and braver.”
Narco News’ decade-long adversarial relationship with the commercial media and our greater priority of building and sustaining a direct, unmediated, relationship with our readers pretty much copies the Arcade Doctrine of theater and applies it to journalism. And you know what? A decade later the jury is in: it works, and is sustainable, across the borders of art forms.
“A lot of younger people who’d work with me would see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But they didn’t understand the level of integrity you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because …it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk… When I break out, it’s because I’ve realized something. Either something that I’m hiding from the audience, something that will embarrass me…”
And those are the moments that – whether it happens on a stage or via an online newspaper – the work breaks through the Fourth Wall and, according to Penny, “We’re all in it together.”
“It’s a complete accident that I have a career,” she says. “It’s really because of the public’s commitment to my work.”
“So when I say it’s an accident, I mean obviously I understand that I made a demand on the audience in the ‘80s, very early on, and that demand was, if you need to see like a big article about me in The New York Times or the Village Voice, stop coming, because they’re probably not gonna write about me. But if you think this work is important, if you like this work, if you want me to continue doing this work, I need you to replace yourself.”
Thirteen and fourteen years ago I attended thirty or forty of Arcade’s shows in a row and although she got very little press from the gatekeepers of the media, every single hall was sold out and filled to the brim. Overflow audiences often sat on stairwells and floors. And every single one had a transformative impact on those who attended it. Since no two shows were exactly alike – like jazz, they improvised around structured sections – it never got boring. The same dynamic continued at the April 2010 show, which borrowed from her entire body of work over the decades.
Arcade’s continued drawing power is testimony to the fact that you don’t need to kiss the critics’ asses, or suck up to the media, to build and expand the attention of the public on one’s work. Being authentic alone might not be enough, but if one is authentically entertaining, funny and observant, one can win the night again and again and again. Freed from the constraints of worrying about whether the critics or the media will approve of one’s work, an artist or communicator achieves a much wider field upon which to play. There is simply more one is allowed to talk about, to show and to tell; a wider well of materia prima, available to the anti-careerist. The boss ceases to be someone in a hierarchy of power outside of a project, and instead becomes the audience, the readers, the listeners. The only thing that then matters is whether they find it worthwhile, and also importantly, whether the work provokes them to participate, because that’s how all work is constantly improved, through that interaction or relationship with the public.
From the 2008 interview:
“I’m against the professionalization of the arts, where people actually think that by going to school for four years, they are an artist. Jack Smith said it best, ‘You have to be willing to be bad for twenty years in order to be great. And then there’s no guarantee…’
“Artists will talk about the politics of politics every fucking second, but they will never say anything about the politics of art. They know what side their bread is buttered on, and they’re not going to get themselves 86’d, as I have.”
The same is true in all fields. So many journalists (including many bloggers) express lots of political opinions but never about the politics and economics of the media industry. Not even “media critics” are allowed to do that! Every ethical lapse must be treated as an isolated act, and never a systemic consequence. It was when the late Jeff Buckley (another whom Penny introduced me to back in the day) started to talk about the politics of the music business that he began to have problems with SONY. Communications – whether media or the arts or some combo of the two – are the industries most protected from authentic communication about how they operate, because the threat is always looming over the heads of communicators; the blacklist, what Arcade calls the 86.
Some didn’t understand at all, for example, my comments yesterday about the talents of the 538 blog moving over to the New York Times. Some asked me, "how can you say that? Isn’t that guy your friend?” First, yes, and that friend will be fine. He can smile all the way to the bank. He’s just going to have to live with the ticket he bought that brings with it the few pockets of sustained criticism of the New York Times that have achieved this unique space (a stage, in a way) from which we’ve long made the Times our foil, a Mrs. Teasdale to our Groucho Marx. 538 can continue to do good things, but can’t during its partnership say anything “bad” about the Times itself, one of the incarnate media problems of our era. Nor can any blogger or reporter that aspires to work at official media, where the Times is considered king. And that has long been the achilles heel of so much "alternative" journalism, art, blogging, or whatever: the playing of the role of "the outsider" as merely an audition to become an insider, when the rare authentic artist or revolutionary is up to a different game altogether: tearing down the prison wall between inside and out. Democracy is not a lottery ticket!
Self-censorship is the guillotine over the heads of so much media, including those who inhabit the “alternative” press. Mark Liebovich and David Carr were enormously important writers in their alterna-media salad days. Since they’ve been swallowed up the Times, can you cite or even remember anything of real import they’ve been allowed to write since?
True, the official media try to ignore, or mock, or discredit any voice raised up against any of its members from the critique of the everyday life of how the sausage is really made in those media. Take this 2002 “review” of Penny Arcade’s show, New York Values, in 2002, by Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice:
“Like the amusement of her adopted name, Penny Arcade offers a reasonable amount of low-rent razzle-dazzle and whisbang for the buck. In New York Values (P.S. 122), she delivers her rants and raps ringed by a chorus of go-go boys and girls, illuminated by spots, magnified by live video, and backed by a rock ‘n’ roll soundscape… Of course, discussing Arcade’s material is almost beside the point. She’s attracted a following not for what she says… but for who she is: a dizzy autodidact with big boobs and a mean streak. Even at 51, she still looks devastatingly cute in décolletage and mouse ears… It’s a pity her repetitive material isn’t aging as well as her rack.”
As Stephen Bottoms notes in Bad Reputation, “The poisonous blend of sexism and snobbery in these comments hardly needs underlining.” I would add: except to mandate the observation that such cat calls have failed at their motive of turning the public off from Arcade’s work (Swift’s concept of a confederacy of dunces increasingly is recognized by the public as pointing toward genius, and the official media's minions are more frequently receiving the dunce hat), more in popular demand than ever before, built one member of the public at a time, and than by the word-of-mouth that public generated.
What has lost credibility and attraction over these same years is the professional gatekeeper of media and other institutions. It was the generic reporter and critic’s repetitive and formulaic material that didn’t “age well” and the public stopped looking to them for guidance; many were simply laid off. The media market-niched its audience by “identity” categories and demographics, in accord with advertiser "targeting" strategies, which makes Arcade’s early 1990s observation atop this review about “the political climate” and the diverse kinds of people that “are not supposed to be all in one room” prophetic. When Barack Obama began saying something similar a decade and more later, many people thought it was a new idea!
Now, here’s a little word-of-mouth, YouTube style - from that same New York Values show in the same year - so you can now replace the obsolete Voice critic, too:
A lot of the strange official hostility toward self-sufficient projects is class generated ("low rent... autodidact... mean streak...", these are descriptions that are only considered epithets by the comfortable, for whom the most classless act is desiring a classless society aloud): Big media tends to hire its troops from oversocialized university graduates. Autodidacts are generally less reliable as contented servants. (“There is nothing so depressing,” said the Mexican anarchist and independent journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, “as a happy slave.”) And likewise nothing is so threatening to the managing classes than the evidence that the rest of us can manage ourselves just fine, thank you very much. Everyone who is working class or poor (and that is the majority of everyone, after all) knows how this works, as it is drummed into our heads from every direction from a very early age.
In Arcade’s earliest full-length stage work, La Miseria, an actor portraying her brother, Mario, yells at Penny on stage:
“You are working class! That’s what you are… You’re living in a fuckin’ fantasy world. You know that? You – what – you wanna be an artist? … Let me clue you into something. Art – art – art is for rich people… Besides that, nobody wants to fuckin’ hear from you. Huh? So just shut your mouth!”
And then there are those, like Arcade, for whom shutting up is an impossibility.
Steve Zehentner, Penny’s longtime dramaturge, writes in Bad Reputation:
“I used to describe Penny as an angry mob in just one person. I would complain to her after witnessing another round of her surly public behavior – breaking the routine of calm of the neighborhood café with a tirade against the ‘pseudo-hip’ gentrifiers, swinging the microphone stand perilously close to the heads of the audience – that she was never socialized. I’m truly sorry about that. Now I recognize it as a little miracle.”
“She marched around her loft as if on the verge of a great discovery. She talked and walked and had things she wanted to hip me to – things I needed to know: ‘You don’t know the ground you’re standing on,’ she said. ‘The whole Lower East Side used to be a landing pad for aliens; the illegal, the immoral, the born losers, it was a Mecca for the Misfit. It had everything except control freaks. Have you seen the avant-garde lately? Who are those young Republicans with purple hair?”
“She doesn’t sit. Working with Penny is to engage in the continual development of a never-ending performance… She’s up, stomping about, trying things out, thinking out loud. She turns up the music and now she’s dancing: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Dylan, The Rolling Stones. People drop in, hang out. She likes an audience. There’s always commotion, something stirring in the air.”
Every word Steve writes is true, 24 hours a day. Penny is the same person on or off stage, which means, take your pick, she is either never off stage, or perhaps never on it in the sense of a pedestaled stage that places the performer as elite and above the plebes in the audience.
Another thing I learned from Penny is the power of long term patience. Also from the Bad Reputation interview:
“As Quentin Crisp said when I complained to him about my career, ‘Not to worry, Ms. Arcade. Time is kind to the nonconformist.’ You know, so eventually… they wouldn’t give me anything in my 40s, you know, they wouldn’t give me anything in my 50s, but no doubt if I live into my 80s, I will have the full thing, do you know what I mean? Because that’s how it works. They wait ‘till you can absolutely do nothing with it.”
After attending Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden last year, I made similar observations. Ten years ago Pete was largely out of sight and out of mind, and certainly in the media. I remember when singer-songwriter Stephan Said pulled Pete out of his Beacon farmhouse to collaborate on a song against the Iraq war, The Bell, and how little attention that got. But by 2009, suddenly Pete, the former blacklisted communist, was playing before hundreds of thousands on the National Mall at the President’s inauguration, and filling The Garden for his birthday. Time is kind to the nonconformist who marches to his and her own beat, if he and she live long enough to harvest it. And posthumous history is even kinder.
There’s a lot more to say about Penny Arcade and her extensive body of work, much of it said well in Bad Reputation. This may be the first review of her work that didn’t focus much on her being raised “by a tawdry band of drag queens,” among them Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Penny’s history from Stonewall through “gay rights,” and the AIDs crisis, to a more public hetero and market acceptance of gays with her singular front row faghag seat, or the matter of fact that she is widely and fairly considered heiress to movements and moments like Warhol’s Factory, The Living Theater and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, among others. The first musical project that Patti Smith ever formed was with Penny, and all those historic events are of course important, but I chose to focus on what I think is most relevant to our work as communicators and artists in the present day.
Projects that really are free of any worry over offending the gatekeepers and that succeed at building an authentic relationship with the public without dependence on the media are immensely important to the freedom of society. They become more important every day as the warden caste of the mass media prison solidifies its techno-grasp on the dwindling control panel: the press is entering a new era of fewer and fewer reporters and more and more middlemen, editors and outsourced “content providers.”
Penny Arcade’s project in theater and performance began doing it, year in, year out, before any of us attempted anything similar in journalism or media. With more experience, it is of course more highly evolved and advanced, a continual engine of innovation that can be applied not just to journalism, but to all art and forms of communication.
The School of Authentic Journalism today makes Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews a recommended textbook of our curriculum. As one of our recent graduates, Sebastian Kolendo, the young Wikipedia overlord now working as a video editor on the Narco News team, recently commented while watching the video of Penny’s 1995 stage interview of the late Quentin Crisp in Austria, “Who is that doing the interview? That’s the best journalistic interview I’ve ever seen!” Bad Reputation is of course a must-read for anybody who ever steps or hopes to step upon a stage, but – think about it - that means journalists, too. And all artists in any field. Its transcripts, essays and interviews open the curtain on an important part, surprise, surprise, of our own secret history.
Penny Arcade official website.
The book, Bad Reputation, can be mail ordered via The MIT Press.
By Al Giordano
The best independent reputation on the Internet today announced that it will co-brand with the worst journalistic reputation on earth.
What were the statistical probabilities of that?
The New York Times sucks the life force out of every single person it touches. And now I have to watch someone I like and admire be destroyed, slowly and painfully (yes, nerds, think of it in language you can understand: it's the Sarlacc pit from Star Wars), where they will either digest him slowly over a thousand years after stuffing him behind a paywall or, worse, turn him into a prick just like every other Timesman.
In the end, everybody has the right to make our own mistakes, and that goes for Nate, too. I've cheered every other success he has had: the book contracts, the New York mag gig, and all. I mourn this move because I want Nate to succeed and go to the toppermost of the poppermost. But the Times is hurtling downward in the opposite direction.
Remember those crazy protesters outside the Royal Wedding with the placards that shouted “Don’t Do It, Di”? At the end of the tunnel car chase, it turned out that they were right.
Not even Nate Silver can make the passé New York Times cool again. But the Times, in its death throe years, can make even Nate Silver uncool.
I don't know what he's thinking. This is not the first time an artist or rock star I've known took a turn toward nihilism. But, Jebus, Nate: heroin would have been a safer move!
Good luck, Bro. I hope I’m wrong about this. And we will miss you on the outside. While you’re there, at least make some blueprints of the building, its security systems, floor plans, exits and entrances, and a list of each guard's vices, and send them this way, for you'll want us to know how to rescue you when the revolution comes.
By Al Giordano
This handsome young Canadian is Jesse Freeston of The Real News, whose cutting edge online video journalism work has been featured here before. He was one of 40 volunteer professors in February at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico where we trained each other plus 30 students to be better at this craft. Today he writes you a letter about his experience at the 2010 J-School and asks you to support this project with a donation:
I think the word that was all over my lips after the J-School was unique. What a unique experience I had, truly like none other I’ve had. I’m very picky about the people I spend time with, some might even say, an asshole. That said, I can’t think of a single person in a room of 60 at the J-School that I wouldn’t want to spend more time with. I familiarized myself with new concepts, skills and perspectives, some of which I have already put into practice. I met some tactics, ideas, and templates that I will likely never emulate or disse minate. But I’m still all the better for having been exposed to them in an environment like the one provided by the school...
After unique, if I could help myself to an entire phrase to describe the school, it would be density of potential. The human potential that was in the room in Mexico was unprecedented. The capacity per square foot was orders of magnitude above any room in the world. And we’re just starting to harvest the fruits of that time spent together.
So to those who have already donated, and those who helped organize the school, thank you a million times over. For those who still have some pennies to spare, pretty please with a journalistic revolution on top, help us keep Narco News publishing also so we can do this again next year!
You can donate online at this link:
Or send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 241
Natick, MA 01760 United States
There's more to Jesse's letter, so read the whole thing. Truth is, we're short on funds right now and with the summer season about to begin I'm worried that we'll have to make some cuts while I go out to the street corner and clean windshields or lease my writing fingers out to pen comic-tragic porn for The Onion or Wonkette (that would be fun, but wouldn't you miss me here?) to be able to pay the bills for the rest of the team who works so hard here every night and day on subsistence level stipends reporting, translating, webmastering, editing video, training and being trained as the next generation of authentic journalists.
We give this to y'all for free. We always have. That means we have to count on your generosity and support to keep on keepin' on. So toss a coin into the cup if you can, large or small, every little bit helps.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...