Guest Blog by Kelly Pendergrast: Occupy and its Representations

Kelly Pendergrast, author of this blog post, co-curated a subsection of the exhibition I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law which highlights the role creative media production plays in the Occupy movement. View these videos, along with other works curated by Justin Hoover, through April 19, 2012, in the SOMArts Main Gallery. Pictured above is an aerial shot from a video by Stuart Long (PLOTS) of a November 2011 Occupy protest at UC Davis.

The Occupy movement, as with the Arab Spring that preceded it, has been framed by the media its activists use to document their actions and the police responses to them. Livestreaming from mobile devices, low-res YouTube videos, and the proliferation of digital photography hew to a particular aesthetic that has come to signify immediacy, “realism”, and citizen journalism.

While this aesthetic entered the popular imagination at least twenty years ago with the proliferation of home video, George Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating, and shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, Occupy’s use of media represents an application of newer video technology that has allowed viewers to watch events as, or immediately after, they unfold.

The implications of this instantaneity interest me, partly because of the way it speeds up the cycles of news and reactions to news, and partly because of what it implies about the camera as participant and observer of events. However, in terms of Occupy I’m most fascinated by work that avoids the conventional tactics of activist media, because the tools we use affects the kind of stories we are able to tell, and I am interested in the less-told stories.

Eric Stewart’s 16mm films present such a story: they provide a handmade vision of Occupy that is both intimate and cinematic, in contrast to the immediacy (aesthetic and literal) of digital video. While Stewart says his choice to document Occupy in 16mm isn’t motivated by opposition to the video aesthetic or a desire to comment on medium, his work reflects a filmic tradition that values the non-narrative, associative editing, and an altered relationship to temporality.

Molly Hankwitz’s “Pike Loop” combines snippets of the now-famous footage of Lieutenant John Pike pepper spraying UC Davis, slowed to a queasy stop-motion, with a proliferation of the collaged “pepper spray cop” images and .gifs. The images spin and distort in a hallucinatory slideshow, paired with the now-ominous tones of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter. By repurposing YouTube videos and a popular meme, Hankwitz re-presents the Davis pepper spraying with jacked-up intensity, humor, and a canny awareness of how the Internet tells and retells stories about culture and trauma.

Stewart Long’s aerial footage, assembled using technology devised by the open-source warriors at The Public Space Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), directly challenges our expectations of what kinds of media can be produced by the general public. Since map making is usually the domain of those in power, essential political data about crowds, borders, and names are also defined by the powerful. PLOTS gives artists and activists the tools to create their own aerial maps and videos using cheap materials and free software. In Long’s videos, mapping becomes a tool for quantifying dissent, providing perspective and a crowd counts for huge rallies that could otherwise only be experienced from the ground level.

About the author of this post:

Kelly Pendergrast is a film and video curator, maker, and writer. She programs film and video for Artists’ Television Access, where she is invested in providing a forum for underground and experimental artists to collaborate and show their work.

Originally from New Zealand, Kelly now lives and works in San Francisco. She holds an MFA from the University of California San Diego and a BA from the University of Otago. Most recently, Kelly has been working with a group of women filmmakers on a new quarterly screening series, GAZE.