Avatar Activism: Limits and Possibilities

This post was contributed by Thomas Travers, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He tweets at @TWLTravers

Avatar ActivismCrystal Bartolovich (University of Syracuse) opened her lecture last Wednesday (June 15th) at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities with a screening of the narratively condensed trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar. This abridged version of the film, in turn, formed the key reference point around which her presentation on the limits and possibilities of ‘Avatar Activism’ revolved.

Coined by American media theorist Henry Jenkins, ‘Avatar Activism’ describes a strategy whereby social justice movements appropriate images from popular culture and put them into service for struggles in the real world. Jenkins first proposed the term in response to a filmed re-enactment of Cameron’s blockbuster movie in the occupied village of Bil’in. Appearing in the likeness of the embattled Na’vi, Palestinian and Israeli activists stunningly rewrote Avatar as an allegory for the ongoing dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposed to an august Frankfurt School style dismissal of Avatar as industrial spectacle, Jenkins detects within its globally distributed imagery of green anti-imperialism the raw material for a democratic ‘participatory culture’. Participation here refers to the dramatic re-contextualisation, or well-nigh hacking or glitching of the Hollywood cultural form, a tactic that enables oppressed people to re-narrate their struggles through the libidinal apparatus of the culture industry, shocking audiences into a heightened awareness of injustice. Affective and emotional investment in the symbolic realm inexorably leads, in Jenkin’s argument, to progress in the material world.

Yet is it precisely the efficacy of this seamless transition from symbolic gratification to social intervention that Bartolovich wanted to complicate in her bracing account of contemporary climate politics. Situating Avatar within debates surrounding the Anthropocene, Bartolovich highlighted a damaging rift between a symbolic recognition of the imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions and the minimal purchase this recognition has had in actuality. In order to arrest the unsustainable levels of energy consumption in the gated communities of the global North, Bartolovich forecasted the necessary implementation of unpopular, top down, draconian measures. And it is on questions of cost, of consent, of sacrifice that she finds ‘Avatar Activism’ desperately inadequate.

Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology

Where others might have chastised Jenkin’s work as the ‘intellectualisation of amusement’, Bartolovich provided an immanent critique of his thesis and a salutary reminder as to how easily the utopian qualities of cultural texts can reverse into ideological reconciliation with the present. Avatar’s ecological consciousness is typically considered to reside in the successful opposition of the Na’vi to the technological degradation and exploitation of Nature. This antagonism, however, may not be as stark as it at first seems. Nature on Pandora is, in a sense, always already technology: for each weapon or communicational network the colonisers have, the Na’vi have an analogous one. The message, as Bartolovich points out, is clear; not only do the Na’vi want nothing, but that their harmonious relationship with an intensified nature amounts to a purer, superior form of life. As T.J. Clark has recently argued in a series of lectures presented at Birkbeck, the land of Cockaigne is the fantasy of a world already cooked, where the need for sweat, labour, and toil has been thoroughly abolished. What should alarm us about the inscription of such codes in Avatar is that they perpetuate a delusion that the North can shrink its carbon footprint without any serious alteration to its current levels of consumption. Utopian resistance cartwheels into ideological containment as the necessary sacrifices of any viable climate politics are massaged into something more palatable entirely. Avatar offers, in other words, a reassuring image of an improved nature that is already dormant in the present, repressing the inevitable deprivations and constraints that would accompany a concerted effort to avert the worst permutations of the Anthropocene.      

Disavowing Defeat 

Another challenge to the endorsement of Avatar develops out of the observation that the military hardware of the sky people is surprisingly outdated. Where one might expect the fully automated arsenal of drone, chemical, and biological weapons, Cameron mobilises tanks, infantry, and helicopters. Coupled with the astounding ability of the Na’vis’ arrows to penetrate armoured vehicles, Avatar recodes the indigenous encounter with empire—a history of decimation, massacre, and genocide—with triumphant resistance. This aesthetic sleight of hand simultaneously disavows the asymmetry of such conflicts and, in doing so, implies that the vanquished were defeated on account of their own failings. The Bil’in video concludes with the Na’vi protesters doubled up, choking on tear gas; a potent reminder of the lethal economy that the armed state apparatus deals in. Bartolovich pointedly adds that the pristine Eden of Pandora is itself a phantasmagoric revision of the slums and toxic landscapes that the precarious communities of late capitalism are likely to inhabit. There is, then, a significant discontinuity between the types of imaginary identification entertained by the symbolic text of Avatar and the impoverished and defeated reality of the global surplus population.

Possibilities?

Bartolovich convincingly demonstrated the inadequacy of Jenkin’s proposed ‘Avatar Activism’, highlighting its inability to overcome the gap between symbolic attitude and material action. Cameron’s movie offers a green politics shorn of sacrifice, the fantasy of a world already made that the consumer can occupy without detriment to their present lifestyle. Confronted with the dilemmas of climate catastrophe, Avatar conjures away the negative, presenting an altogether agreeable impression of a greener, less alienated form of consumption. What of the possibilities? Against the ‘naïve’ interpretation of the plight of the Bil’in protesters as commensurable with the Na’vi, Bartolovich contends that the video détourns Hollywood spectacle. Wrenched out of its universalising context, the activists expose the particularity of Cameron’s movie, render visible the human damage, loss, and defeat the film silences, making perceptible the material costs the film seeks to vanish. The Bil’in video captures the uncooked raw material of a world in which radical social change can only be achieved through the sacrifices of collective action.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Institute for the Humanities . Tags: , , , ,

Lux Imperium: Moving Images of the British Empire

This post was contributed by Noah Angell, co-director of the upcoming film Lux Imperium. A work in progress of the film will be introduced at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) Amateur Cinema Night on Saturday 18 June. Book your free place here.

Fishwick British rule ends

Lux Imperium is a new film and research project by Noah Angell and Francis Gooding. This afternoon session will introduce the project, before expanding its scope to look at amateur film in relation to cinema and examine some contemporary vernacular films drawn from online sources.

The home movie camera first became available to the public in the same decades that saw the unraveling of the British Empire. While using this technology to record their private lives, amateur filmmakers throughout the British colonies were also unwittingly capturing the biggest empire in history in free fall. Composed from hundreds of home movies and privately edited amateur films made during the dissolution of the British Empire, Lux Imperium reanimates these documents of late colonial vision and imperial collapse, showing the last days of the Empire from an intimate and wholly unseen perspective.

The ubiquity of privately-made moving images in the era of smart phones, Youtube, and mobile broadband makes the history of vernacular film a pressing contemporary issue that this work will imaginatively and critically explore.

For the session held at BIMI on the 18th of June, Francis Gooding will give his paper, ‘The Visual Vernacular: 6 note on amateur film’, which provides a formal framework for distinguishing amateur film as a cinematic language that is distinct from other modes of cinematic production.

This will be followed by a screening and discussion of in-progress edits of Lux Imperium and its source reels – private films from the colonies, recording the British colonial classes’ vision of events and daily minutiae, with subject matter ranging from anti-Imperial uprisings to colonial gardening.

2005-046-016_stare 3To conclude the session, Angell and Gooding will speak about contemporary amateur film, showcasing and analyzing vernacular film practice taken from Youtube, Vine and Instagram. Moving images are now an everyday mode of processing and preserving experience, and homemade films are now a critical tool in the constitution and cohesion of online communities who are geographically dispersed or otherwise isolated. Online spaces which traffic in moving images are frequently used to publicly document, present and define both political events and the private self, and also as a space of play.

Lux Imperium is based on material uncovered and first digitized as part of the BFI-hosted Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire project (www.colonialfilm.org.uk). By recognizing the importance of home movies within the visual history of colonialism, Lux Imperium will further develop the ideas and research of the original Colonial Film project.

A work in progress of Lux Imperium will be hosted by BIMI at the Birkbeck Cinema (43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD) on Saturday 18 June 2016 at 2pm. Book your free place here.

Find out more

  • Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI)
Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , ,

Reporting from the Essay film Festival 2016

This post was contributed by Jerry Whyte, who attended a selection of events at this year’s Essay film Festival.

Essay Film FestivalBirkbeck’s annual Essay Film Festival ran from 17-24 March and served up a lavish feast of riveting films. Those who’ve spent the past week or so beetling between the Birkbeck Cinema, Goethe-Institut and ICA to savour the festival’s competing, often complimentary, flavours will be digesting what they’ve seen, felt and thought for weeks to come.

All at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) deserve congratulations and grateful thanks for an imaginatively curated season packed full of unforgettable images and nourishing ideas.

Two festival events, in particular, set my taste buds tingling. An appreciative audience gathered at the ICA on the evening of Saturday 19 March for Lost Film Found Film – a programme of four monumental short films by the supremely talented Sarah Wood, and, in the Birkbeck Cinema on Monday (21st) afternoon, we savoured a rare screening of Judith Williamson’s documentary essay on advertising, A Sign is a Fine Investment (1983). Williamson and Wood exemplify an increasingly prevalent form of the essay film often referred to as ‘filming without a camera’. Theirs is an ‘appropriation art’ of collage or assemblage that recalls Godard’s notion of film as “a form that thinks”; both rework, reshape and recontextualize found footage, moulding archive material into streams of audio-visual consciousness and multi-layered holistic wholes.

Elegantly intelligent film

The range and reach of Sarah Wood’s work is staggering. In Three Minute Warning (2012), she considers how the twin thrusts of cinema and aviation propelled the 20th Century forward, for good and ill. In 10 X Murmuration (2015), Wood’s precise editing and keen eye for an arresting image find their perfect match in a scintillating script by Helen McDonald (of H is for Hawk fame). Their elegantly intelligent film combines tales of doughty starlings and ‘traitorous’ skylarks with consideration of wartime radar experiments and mass observation ornithological surveys, espionage and national identity.

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

For Cultural Purposes Only (2009) glides elegantly between History with a capital H and the history of images while recounting the story of the Palestinian Film Archive – a painstakingly constructed collection of films tragically lost during Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982. What, the film and programme notes ask, must it feel like never to see an image of your homeland, in our image-satured era?

I Am a Spy (2014) tells an amusing, but chilling anecdote about Stasi cross-dressing while probing the politics of representation and surveillance cultures. In conversation with Catherine Grant after the screenings, Wood confided that espionage runs in her blood. Both her parents spied for Britain. In her dotage, Wood’s grandmother would mumble about her time in Wormwood Scrubs but the family’s indulgent smiles froze when they learned the prison had served as MI5’s wartime HQ and that granny had been a spy too. Wood is as witty as she is gifted so that conversation and the subsequent Q&A provided the icing on the cake of a delicious evening.

A path through the maze of advertising

Judith Williamson’s A Sign is a Fine Investment is often compared to John Berger’s earlier Ways of Seeing series (1972) but cuts its own distinctive path through the maze of advertising. Unlike Berger, Williamson eschews conventional to-camera narration and largely allows the images to speak for themselves. Her starting point, she explained, was the assumption that, although the original context of any product is that of its production, the world of work is excluded from advertising. As she delved deeper into the archive, she was startled to discover that this has not always been the case and that when labour was associated with the national interest, in wartime for instance, images of the workplace were commonplace.

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

In this acutely analytical, often witty film, Williamson resists the false separation of production and consumption, the economic and the ideological, life and art. As she does in her better-known writing, she asks: if a product’s context is its production, what is the context of the consumer – without whom, after all, there can be no consumption? Inevitably, much of the film’s appeal lies in the nostalgia of recognising familiar products. Listening to Williamson recall more radical times, it was impossible not be nostalgic, too, for the days when the Arts Council would regularly commission non-commercial films like A Sign is a Fine Investment and Laura Mulvey’s Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1980), and when such work would be screened in independent cinemas like the Academy.

Williamson provided a salutary corrective to such rose-tinted temptations, though, by describing the fractious avant-garde turf wars she experienced back then, when arguments over competing representational strategies often turned nasty. In her essay ‘Two or Three Things We Know About Ourselves’, Williamson respectfully critiqued Laura Mulvey’s seminal film Riddles of the Sphinx for “locating both the struggle and its solution in the inner lives of the oppressed.”

As I sat in the Birkbeck Cinema listening to Judith Williamson respond to a respectful question from Laura Mulvey, I thought of footsteps and giants and experienced a rush of pride in the culture that produced two such extraordinary and significant figures. High among the achievements of this year’s Essay Film Festival was that of bringing them together.

Jerry Whyte also recently reviewed ‘The Pearl Button’ by Patricio Guzmán, and interviewed ‘The Club’ filmmaker Pablo Larrain for Cineoutsider

Find our more

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: ,

Kinetic Connections – Laura Mulvey reflects on her career as avant-garde filmmaker and feminist film critic

This post was contributed by Felicity Gee, Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.

On February 7th, The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities held an afternoon event in celebration of Laura Mulvey and her influential body of work; and, as you would expect, every seat in the lecture theatre was taken. I came to Mulvey’s work via the same route that I imagine most film students to have taken, through her famous 1975 Screen essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. The Birkbeck event, chaired by Ian Christie (Birkbeck), was a semi-retrospective of Mulveyan dialectics in feminisim and psychoanalysis, but also a look forward to new developments in film analysis. For me, the most stimulating segment was Mulvey in conversation with A.L. Rees (ICA) discussing avant-garde filmmaking in London during the late 1970s and early 1980s, an account which also seemed to prompt the majority of questions from an enthused audience.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

This fascinating discussion peppered with frank anecdotes regarding the political climate and funding for film projects in the UK, was accompanied by a rare screening of Mulvey’s film Amy! Using melodrama’s gestural form and a self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic, the film examines the rise to stardom of the first woman to fly solo from Great Britain to Australia, Amy Johnson. Mulvey explained how she was inspired by Brecht’s dictum ‘Happy the lad that needs no heroes’, adjusting it to ‘Happy the feminism that needs no heroines’ for her portrait of Amy.  The film offers imagined scenes dramatising Amy’s reluctance to embody the role of newspaper sensation or national heroine, which are intercut with newsreel footage of the ‘real’ Amy’s public reception, ironically delivered ‘broadcast’ of newspaper headlines, and black and white footage from student film seminars. It is a collection of disparate segments that are juxtaposed to reveal Amy’s private and public identities to tragi-comic effect.

I particularly enjoyed Mulvey’s confessional anecdote on how her ‘naïve optimism’ and penchant for symmetry are thrown ‘off-kilter’ by co-director Peter Wollen’s canted patterns of composition, a combination which, for me, gives the film its counter-narrative politic while retaining a certain pathos. Mulvey’s insights into her work as a filmmaker surely augment any discussion of aesthetics and spectatorship in her more widely known film criticism. Her films have certainly been under-researched, and I hope this event will encourage scholars to engage with them further.

The session concluded with a demonstration and discussion of ideas from Mulvey’s 2006 book, Death 24x a Second, commencing with a short segment from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life that had been stretched and slowed through freeze-framing. The video aims to reveal ‘hidden’ aspects of the film using this strategy of fragmentation, and effectively illustrates how ‘the opposing iconographies’ of spectacular and maternal femininity are staged. The Mulvey day traced a complete cycle from the manipulation of images by the filmmaker, to the suggestion that manipulation of the image now lies as much with the spectator, who has much greater control over how the film is screened. Pausing, stretching, cropping, and repetition of cinematic time is made possible by new digital formats and file sharing systems, and alters how the gaze and linear narrative function.

By the end of the session I was left slightly hypnotised by a palimpsestic image of Marilyn Monroe that had been contorted and drawn out by Mulvey’s hand, and left to repeat endlessly in the ‘twilight zone’[1] – the enigmatic celluloid repository of cultural history.


[1] Mulvey applies Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘twilight zone’ (the point at which personal memory disappears into history) to cinema: ‘On celluloid, personal and collective memories are prolonged and preserved, extending and expanding the “twilight zone”, merging individual memory with recorded history’. (Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, 2006, 25).

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Institute for the Humanities . Tags: , ,