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Dystopia Files by Mark Tribe was seen at SITE Santa Fe and other venues in 2011

Dystopia Files, Five Years After, Makes Past Prologue

About five years ago I interviewed artist Mark Tribe on microphone. (Podcast archive here.)

We talked about his work Dystopia Files that began in 1999 when Tribe first shot video showing interactions between police and protesters on U.S. streets.

Tribe personally shot some of what came to compose the Dystopia Files archive at the Battle in Seattle protests (World Trade organization, 1999). He observed to me during our interview the ways that the Battle changed how protest was policed.

In 2003, the “Miami model  arose to describe the Miami authorities’ desire not to be surprised by protesters at a subsequent trade talks’ protest held in that city. The Miami model launched a category of weaponry called “less than lethal weapons.”  These included paintball canisters filled with tear gas, and eventually, LRADs, long-range acoustic devices like sound cannons.

The  Miami model legally employed pre-emptive arrests, which became a tactic widely used and copied by police during the Occupy movement to remove protesters from streets that were, actually, geographically far from scenes of protest action, and specifically (as concerned Occupy) from Zanotti Park in Manhattan.

Mark Tribe as an artist and a political actor came to an observation that protest is performative. As Brazilian theorists like Paulo Freire and theatre director Augusto Boal had understood, performative actions  ― touching on formalisms of art even as they transected social change    do not have to take place on a theater stage. Such was the premise of  live-action theaters like Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed

Boal in 2005 described what happened in 1960s Brazil. Members of the public spontaneously took on performative roles in street drama. “The actor became the spectator of the spectator who had become an actor, so the fiction and reality were overlapping, no?,” he told Juan Gonzales on Democracy Now in 2005.

With the recent confluence of reprehensible events ricocheting from the killings of civilians by police to killings of police by civilians, comes a new widespread recognition of what power has been imparted by the small screen of smartphone cameras. For individuals, that small screen is an agent metaphorically as potent as new weaponry that is also changing the dialogue about lines between policing and warfare.

Writer Mary Curtis has decried the “compartmentalization of mourning.”

It is rare that there has felt so open an opportunity to discuss what role exactly the arts might contribute to discourse about images and politics in a time so fractured and fear-mongering as now. Video, to crib from Julia Scher speaking at the Tate Media in Transition conference, has addicted Americans to relentless and abject “appearances in screens.”

I had revisited my 2011 podcast interview with Tribe partly to remind myself about a new media artist whose work entailed back in 1999 and forward, a formal modeling of new media communications structures’ larger participatory roles in society. Tribe’s interests in public space extended later on to staging live re-enactments of historical speeches in public parks.

Tribe who also 20 years ago founded the open-source arts website, Rhizome, observed about 20 minutes into our conversation,  “New media is a strange term, isn’t it.”  I had been probing specifically how Tribe perceived the work of his camera at the protests he attended. Was it a camera among cameras? Or was it a camera on the cameras like a two-way mirror in which the recorder at least presumptively parodied the (absent) conscience of mass media?

Today these questions seem almost quaint. Yet the requirement to begin to parse new appearances in screens, is urgent. Reflection is the factor that must not be lost in the race to be a commenter on the fast roll of events as seen and shared on small screens.

I was visiting last week in Colorado with two of my closest New York women friends. On our first morning together I was using them as a sounding board for a discussion of lines between documentary and art, and new uses of social media.  We began discussing the Minnesota and Baton Rouge police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.  By dinner that night came reports of the Dallas sniper who killed five Dallas police officers. Our phones pinged with news updates.  (And, subsequent to writing of article, the appalling murder of  two police officers in Baton Rouge.) We could hardly believe our ears.

Adepts and boomboxes both share space in digital or new media democracy. Diamond Reynolds’ superlative composure notches a singular place for herself. Riffing off a PR term, Diamond Reynolds became a “super-influencer” because of a calamity, a human tragedy. Whether she was documenting out of instinct or as coping skill is unanswerable.  Diamond Reynolds told the BBC the other day:  “I never thought things that I saw happen on TV were going to happen in my life.”

“We  [Philando Castile and she] were planning marriage. We were going to get a dog. We were going to have kids. We were going to move. I was going to get a better job. We were going to get up and get over, you know, the slums. Now I don’t know how I’m going to do those things without him.”

One of my friends had said in the morning, and I had written it down,  “All this police stuff.  Now, it’s become a body of work.” The ethics are far from being sorted  out.

As we head into the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the role of national grief and the twisting of nationalist rhetoric, makes essential talk about intersections of racism and institutional authority an immense responsibility. It’s a responsibility not made any easier by the many ways that images can be spun into mirrors of a darkening language even seen through a lens meant to make public behavior transparent.

Even writing this far into this essay has imparted a slight tension headache. It’s as if critical interrogation of what we’re seeing as we’re seeing it comes too much to psychically handle.

New media proposes caveats upon caveat and dependent clauses that can’t stand alone upon other rickety parts of image-making speech

My ability to see information all day on my phone or laptop and sitting down at night to watch TV, in front of a 48-inch screen, has gradations of cultural penetration that many if not most Americans today share. It’s your screen but it’s our society, and the “it” of media appearances―chirrup you have a text, brring an appointment― is oddly and eternally disembodied, until what is being shown is a body or bodies in the process of being rendered lifeless.

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