Surfing the Crystal: Visual Democracy and New Media

Rock Candy – The Crystal Image and Visual Democracy

by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)

In two of my classes recently we had discussion that vaguely went like this: how can we talk back to power in today’s society of the spectacle? My answer: youtube and crowdsourcing. And I think graphic designers, artists, and the students going into the creative professions can be a big part of this.

Dziga Vertov’s dream was a nation full of ‘people with movie cameras’, a form of radical visual democracy. Check out the following reworked version of the John McCain ‘complete the danged fence’ ad:

I don’t know who did it, and it doesn’t matter. Likely they didn’t have any sort of high end equipment or training – these days, much of the editing software  you need to ‘speak back to power’ in the digital realm is included free on many computers, or lurks within your cellphone (and even in the developing world there are countries now with more cellphones than toilets, there’s no excuse!).

Here we are using the power of the spectacle against itself, Guy Debord style. This is ‘detournement,’ the ‘de-turning’ of a bit of media against its original purpose.

Now, my students are trained in things like graphic design, film editing. Imagine what they can do, make entire image campaigns, films, etc!

Here’s another example, one of the many spoofs of Hilary Clinton’s infamous 3am phone call ad during the primary campaign against Barack Obama:

As soon as this ad came out, it started wave after wave of visual commentary, people all around the country using simple digital and audio editing tools to create new forms of political speech: commentary, satire, rebuke, etc. Here’s an example of one person who reworked the theme of that ad, made his own low-budget version as commentary against McCain in the general election:

There are so many versions of this 3am ad that sprang up, nearly overnight, some simply funny, others full of stark political commentary, that it was hard to keep track. When images mirror each other like this, giving off wave after wave of semi-copies, we have what Gilles Deleuze in Cinema II: The Time-Image calls a ‘crystal-image’ – one image acts as a germ or seed, and it crystalizes the medium its in, just like a string when you make rock candy. The result is a proliferation of possible paths the image can take, but they all echo each other.

Hillary’s ad was in this sense the germ that crystalized a hypersaturated medium, looking for a bit of detritus to attach to so it could speak. And speak it did. But in a manner that is rhizomatic and radically distributed. A network of similar spoofs and commentaries, all mirroring the original in one form or another, until the originality of the original becomes ‘besides the point’, and the copies start to supersede the original in importance. News shows at the time this was all happening started to report on the various spoofs, which started getting more coverage than the original ad.

What we see here is what Baudrillard calls simulation. But Baudrillard is in many senses a fatalist, he seems to feel that the original drops out, and the only way forward is to go through the spectacle, increase its density, and come out the other side. I think this may be too fatalist AND too utopian all at once.

I think we see the potential for new and radically distributed forms of political speech. The Hilary ad was in fact crowdsourced, reworked, and within a matter of hours, there was a crystal-image of commentary, some pro-, some contra-, some silly, some serious.

I think YouTube and the proliferation of cheap computer power is a radical tool for speaking back to power in all sorts of new ways. We have Dziga Vertov’s dream of digital democracy right in our hands. But most of the time we use it to distribute silly things without thinking about its political potential. Much of this has to do with the fact that the money that controls the center of ‘the spectacle’ is so good at attracting our desires, we miss the potentials of these media. I’ll never forget when Baghdad was being bombed, all everyone wanted to see was if Britney shaved her head or not, rather than comment on it on YouTube. In fact, everytime our country does something heinous, we find just the right silly media circus to distract us. If memory serves, the start of the Iraq war had one of the Michael Jackson trials. The list goes on and on.

Vertov's Dream: Visual Democracy

We have yet to really tap the power of these media. Already people use cell phones to video the cops at protests, and the cops now video back. Videos can become internet and even mainstream news sensations in a couple of days, if they hit the right nerve in the right way. What better way to speak back to power than to crowdsource? The key, however, is to be so entertaining as you do it, that you out entertain the spectacle.

None of which is to say that all such speech will be ‘progressive.’ But I think it can be, and should be.

I also think that there’s much to be said about the sort of ephemeral communities which form on blogs like DailyKos. While relatively mainstream lefty, it has become a powerful national force in its own right, able to raise money for candidates, crowdsource information dispersal, etc. For any even that happens anywhere in the country, I know I can go to DailyKos and its likely somebody whose views I can at least semi- depend on will be there and will report back their view of events. Outside the regular media filters. And a group like DailyKos really does have so many of the characteristics described by Hardt and Negri as ‘multitude.’

Can we find ways to come up with ephemeral communities that can use these new media to talk back to power, and truly bring a new media, radically  distributed, visual democratic age to its birth? First, I think, is to take this as part of our task.

And this is where my students come in. You are the artists of the future, those trained in making images. Are you all up to the challenge?

If protesters in Iran could use Twitter to organize, and protesters in Thailand use social networking sites, we’ve yet to truly understand the potential here if all we use them for is to trade videos of the newest pop sensation (or worse yet, lolcats!).

Can we see the virtual image within the actual?

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~ by chris on May 15, 2010.

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