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Undercurrents
part 8

Undercurrents And The Camcorder Action Network

"Subjectivity is the only truth" Soren Kierkegaard

"How can anybody be truly objective? Everybody has a point of view, and that's what makes you take up the camcorder in the first place The idea is to be honest and show people what they're otherwise not going to get to see." Paul O'Connor, Undercurrents [62]

By the early 1990s, the grassroots direct action movement was finding its own strength as people tackled situations issue by issue, refusing to get caught up in mainstream political posturing.

The road protest movement formed spontaneously as a response to the Government's policy of creating access and bypass roads to facilitate motorway traffic. In the process, land which had been zoned for agriculture, for environment protection, or - as in the case of the M11, residential - was expropriated. Rather than simply demonstrating, the protestors occupied the sites, creating "alternative communities." The protestors at Claremont Road, in East London, created a kind of "alternative village" and held regular free parties and art exhibitions, attracting international media attention. The Government's response was to send in heavy security forces to enforce the building of the road.

With the rapid drop in prices of video-recording equipment in the 1990s - when a basic camcorder can be had for under £400 and a Hi-8 for under £1000, new possibilities arose for documenting the struggles.

At the M11 protest site, Thomas Harding, a Cambridge graduate, who had been involved in the protest movement surrounding the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, met Jamie Hartzell, another neophyte documentary film-maker, who was also a trainee editor at the BBC, and Zoe Broughton a media studies student. Paul O'Connor, originally Irish, an activist and photographer, also became involved in the group. As well as being actively involved in the protest action, all were attempting to document the event, seeing it as a crucial change in British political involvement on the grassroots level. They all found that their environmental films and photographs were rejected by the media as being "too political." While they took this as a compliment, as the work was intended to be political, they were getting no distribution and the movement was getting no recognition.

They made a 40-minute documentary on the M11 road protests, which came out long before the movement had any publicity whatsoever, failed to be broadcast on any British station, though it later won first prize at Germany's 1994 Okomedia Film Festival

Hartzell then left the BBC and he, Broughton, O'Connor and Harding set up Small World Media, as a co-operatively-owned non-profit media company to rectify the trouble that they and other independent documentary makers were having getting their work distributed and/or broadcast. They started Undercurrents, a video magazine of "camcorder journalism" to report on the issues and events ignored by the rest of the broadcast media, and to encourage grassroots direct-action.

The first issue of Undercurrents came out in April 1994, and featured the M11 film, together with a film on the subject of the media's self-censorship of direct action, a critique of local councils' attitudes to environmental issues, and a round-up of the UK's direct action campaigns. This effort was the result of around 50 pieces of footage shot by the Small World group, and collected from other activists. Edited together and "whacked out" as O'Connor calls it, onto five hundred VHS tapes, the first Undercurrents video went out on sale at alternative bookshops, festivals and mail order.

Sales were slow, which did not discourage the group, which by now was actively seeking material from activists up and down the country. In December 1994, the second issue came out, with a focus on the impending Criminal Justice and Public Order Act: videos on squatting, common land issues, Solsbury Hill, Claremont Road road-protests and the rave crackdown were featured, along with a report on the McLibel campaign and television censorship of anti-Indonesian logging adverts.

At this point, the Guardian did an interview (December 5th, 1994) followed in February by the Independent. These articles prompted an "avalanche" of media response: TV, magazines - all wanted to interview the group. This presented the members of the group and the activists with whom they were working with a dilemma: to gain coverage for the campaigns they supported and to sell videos and fund the continuation of the project they would have to get as much "free" publicity as possible. But they were also aware that they ran the risk of becoming "flavour of the month." While they did agree to be featured on "The Little Picture Show" and "The Late Show," they insisted that no reporters were to come to their offices and film them in the spartan Oxfam-furnished editing suite as talking heads behind desks. Instead, the journalists were to accompany them "into the field" to the campaign sites and show them working on site with activists, filming security-protester conflicts etc. This gave publicity to the campaigners as well as to Undercurrents.

At this point, Undercurrents was hoping to capitalise on the publicity to try and convince national and local television to purchase individual items. The creation of the Camcorder Action Network and creation of an archive of activist video has gone some way to realise this goal but as yet no television station has seen fit to broadcast any Undercurrents film. O'Connor says, "ideally, really we'd like to see a spot maybe twice a week on Channel Four where the videos could be broadcast and there would be some opportunity for feedback." In fact, Channel Four has a mandate to show "alternative views" and has publicly said they want more innovative documentary work. [63]

Simon Hattenstone, writing in The Guardian, summed up the relationship of Undercurrents and groups like it to the broadcast media:

"Actually, Undercurrents would sit easily and proudly in the medium for the masses, but TV has never been quite as democratic as it likes us to believe, not even in the days when the BBC cuddled up to Ken Loach, or when Channel Four darned the socks of any documentary film-maker who could spell "anti-establishment." [64]

Undercurrents and TV : Ethics and Aesthetics

Undercurrents' most recent video issues have "blown the whistle" on the mystique of television reportage. As O'Connor says, "we've never met anyone yet who can't do it. By the time it's finished it's a good film." In fact, he goes on to say, the worst films are made by those who fancy themselves as film-makers: the auteur impulse is too strong to make effective reportage! The incredible power of television to get the message across is not so difficult to access. Over the past two and a half years, the Undercurrents team has trained over one hundred people in camcorder video technology. Some of these have started their own activist video co-ops, like Brighton's Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop in London. Others continue to contribute to Undercurrents and projects in their own communities.

O'Connor and Harding both agree that that what they are trying to do with Undercurrents is not television-making but "camcorder activism." The problem, if it is a problem, is that in order to appeal to people brought up on television, it must be entertaining enough so they will watch it. The Undercurrents videos are entertaining, but as O'Connor says "most of the people who involve themselves with Undercurrents come from a DIY cultural backgrounds, and there's always been a strong sense of humour there. Natural humour, not scripted humour - real people not sound bites!" The rhetoric and aesthetic of carnival are present in the anarchic, irreverent humour of the activist videos, implicitly recognising the truth of Vaneigem's statement that "the project of participation is grounded in the passion for play." [65] The question is, would this type of humour appeal to people outside of the DIY cultural background? Obviously it is difficult to tread the fine line between the spactacular nature of our telelvision-viewing habits and expectations, and the use of television as a medium for alternative news. The work of Undercurrents is designed to inform and provoke, not simply to entertain. But they realise, rightly, that didacticism and humourlessness have no popular appeal. The aesthetics of television are difficult, and maybe impossible, to avoid. The trick is to combine the ethics of activism with the aesthetics of television. This in itself means aping as well as satirising the medium that they are criticizing. There are no easy answers.

But it may be a problem that the rhetoric and aesthetic of television is too seductive to camcorder activists. O'Connor admits that, compared to the first few issues, Undercurrents 5, when the group had the Avid and had mastered the equipment well enough, was "so slick it's - sick!" It may be difficult to go on producing material that challenges, mocks and exposes television, yet operates within its boundaries. It must entertain, but not so much that people confuse it with television, and treat it with the same passive consumerism that they treat "The X Files." The other potential "danger" is the lure of a professional broadcast career as a result of this activist work. This is already happening with Undercurrents: Zoe Broughton is already working on BBC commissions. There are potential benefits of this, of course; the danger lies in the possibility of recuperation (see part 10).

Keeping the Thing Alive

As the experience of the New Left radical movement shows, the co-operatively run self-management model of media production declined and fell away during the 1980's period of reaction, as the former activists decided to go and make some money, and the tenuous financial support that had been available dried up. In the United States, formerly hard-core radical Bibles of the 60's and 70's like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Ms. and Village Voice became slick, glossy, expensive - or disappeared. College radio, in some campuses a hotbed of free speech and focus for environmental and social justice groups, was forced throughout the 1980's to chase after corporate sponsorship as student funding was cut. Undercurrents are already feeling this type of squeeze: one original member has already left. A recent grant has allowed them to recruit new administrative personnel, but in order for Undercurrents to survive, the new blood will have to be as firmly committed as they are highly competent. Will they survive? O'Connor does not think it is so important that the actual entity of Undercurrents survives, so long as camcorder activism continues. "We don't want to become an institution here," he says. "Ultimately the dream is more powerful than the product."

"Broadcast Quality"

According to both the BBC and Channel Four, the problem with "activist productions" is that they are not 'broadcast quality.' This is a charge that might initially have been levelled at Undercurrents; in the beginning none of the members knew how to do more than the most rudimentary editing, for example. However, this is no longer true. Personal financing, gifts, an EU grant and the sales of footage have allowed Undercurrents to set up a professional Beta/Avid editing suite, a format transfer system and Hi-8 camcorders. In addition, they train activists onsite and in the edit suite to shoot and edit their own videos, with an emphasis on quality. Finally, as the Undercurrents group has learned more about the techniques of editing, they have made the last few issues quite slick and televisual. Cheap and cheerful the videos Undercurrents, Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop produce may be, their quality is high enough to make them accessible, and their aesthetic and rhetoric retains the carnivalesque flair that characterises contemporary radical DIY culture.

This move has been mirrored by the BBC and CNN, among others, who send many of their foreign correspondents into the field equipped with nothing more than Hi-8 camcorders. And news programmes do buy camcorder-generated material.But still they are reluctant to broadcast activist films. Ironically, this intransigence comes at a time when television, in Britain as in the USA, is buying up cheap camcorder material for dubious "real life" programmes, also known ingenuously as "reality TV." [66] Jon Dovey, in "The Revelation of Unguessed Worlds" argues that it is "the application of the camcorder within the regime of "reality TV" that characterises the dominant face of its culture," thus ever-marginalizing radical interventions using the technology. [67]

Cheap and cheerful the videos Undercurrents, Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop produce may be, their quality is high enough to make them accessible, and their aesthetic and rhetoric retains the carnivalesque flair that characterises contemporary radical DIY culture.

Interestingly, despite the BBC's refusal to recognise activist independent documentary producers and broadcast their work, the new Director of Television, Michael Jackson (a former producer of the Late Show, among others), recently reflected upon his role and the future of the BBC: "...it shouldn't cut itself off from different ways of thinking about the world and different ways of making programmes, or people wandering off and doing things we wouldn't have thought of ourselves." He goes on to predict a new, more accessible broadcast culture in the face of the "threat" of Murdoch and digital TV: "...you can see how television is going to become - despite everything you read every day about Rupert Murdoch or whatever - much more available. The days of gated sanctuaries are over." [68]

Over the past thirty years it has become increasingly apparent that it is important in any struggle to attempt to harness the power of television. However, this has invariably been very difficult to do, given that television access is limited and expensive. The Undercurrents videos are not "television" in the true sense of the word, they are not for broadcast but are sold as VHS cassettes for playing in a video cassette recorder. But they seek to imitate television, news and documentary television. By showing the "news they don't want you to see" [italics mine] the Undercurrents videos are in some ways subversive of television, but since they are not broadcast, they have no access to the power that television has to invade the private space, no power to create "the sudden violent intrusion of the whole world into family and "private" life," (to quote Lefevbre again). And it is precisely this power which makes television so unique, so fraught with danger yet so full of possibility.

 
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