|Los Angeles Review of Books|
C-Span for Radicals by Sara Marcus
October 21st, 2011
MONDAY, OCTOBER 17: It is 12:30 AM on the dot. The live video feed from Zuccotti Park has just frozen, as it does from time to time. At last there is silence in my apartment, and I can begin to write.
I keep the video window open despite the interruption, but some apparently do not: The odometer at the bottom of the frame, measuring the number of real-time viewers, cascades downward, spinning like a dying slot machine. Livestream viewers are an impatient bunch, it seems. When the plummet slows, though, it turns out that only a hundred or so have left, of over a thousand people. The rest of us would rather watch a blank screen, waiting for the stream to return, than give up hope.
An hour ago, restless and browsing Twitter, I learned that the protesters had just won a minor skirmish with the police. Some cops had come to take down the medical tent. Everybody linked arms and formed a human chain around the tent. Jesse Jackson magically appeared. The cops left.
I tune in to the livestream in time to see a guy reenacting the confrontation with funny voices and hand puppets, his hands pursing into Muppet-like visages. "You can't have any structures here!" one hand squeaks. "Fuck you, this is our park and our medical tent!" the other retorts.
Has anybody else seen these amazing puppets? I search Twitter and get into a conversation with somebody who goes by Weeddude. Weeddude thinks the livestream is too unprofessional. Weeddude objects to the hand puppets.
I happen to believe that hand puppets are the key to the coming revolution. Scratch that — the present revolution.
Watching the livestream inclines one to make such sweeping statements.
The livestream is addictive. "Nothing ever happens," says my friend who has been too sick to make it down to the park but has been watching the stream for days on end. "But somethingmight happen, so you have to keep watching just in case." It's the anti-Tivo: On it, time runs only forward, and if you miss seeing an event — a confrontation with police, a meeting, a concert — it's hard to go back to it. Although many segments are saved, and the most recent ones are easily available on the site, they're titled only with a date and time, nothing descriptive or searchable, and in most of the segments nothing happens anyway. (If there were titles, they would be things like "People mill about on a brisk morning" and "Man with cigarette frowns at a computer.") The archived segments are there, but we're not encouraged to watch them.
In a world where the past seems infinitely accessible, the livestream provides a rare dose of linear time. In a movement where the desirability of progress is taken for granted but the idea of particular goals is looked on with suspicion, the livestream may be the perfect mode of documentation.
Most mornings, the camera sits simply on its tripod, registering the daytime bustle in a jerky, distorted strobe of motion. If it's a windy day, the gusts come across as a blown-out rush of digital noise and feedback, like something you'd hear at a festival of difficult electronic music. My friend compares these long stretches of tripod-mounted inaction to a structuralist film, in which you might see just, say, a fire burning for four hours, forcing you to be hyperaware of the presence of the film itself.
In the evenings, the General Assembly meetings are broadcast live — C-SPAN for radicals. The people's microphone turns dry bits of activist bureaucracy into poetry, or process art:
After the GA meetings wrap up, Livestream puts down the C-SPAN and picks up the Wayne's World. It's too dark for a tripod-mounted camera to capture much of anything, so anchors take over: dudes (and it is almost always dudes) who can't figure out the autofocus, aim the camera unwittingly right at their navels, repeatedly indulge in the funny-only-once joke of speaking the people's-microphone buzz phrase "mic check" into an actual microphone. In a chat-room panel to the right of the video window, conversation unfurls at a dizzying pace, sometimes ignoring the action on camera, sometimes responding to it, sometimes driving it. "What's my major," says a New School student, peering down at his laptop to read the questions being lobbed at him from Arkansas, Ottowa, Laguna Beach. "Global studies with a concentration in social justice." Sometimes the chat scrolls by too fast to read any of it, countering the slow sameness of the video. "Am I single. Yes. Where's Dwayne. Dwayne's not here."
Dwayne is the guy who did the puppets. He is model-beautiful, with an artful goatee and a graceful gathering of long dreadlocks, and he's terrific on camera. Everybody misses Dwayne.
The most-accessed images from Occupy Wall Street, of course, are not these fleeting live-stream dramas; they're the cell-phone shots of women being pepper-sprayed, men being punched, and they fit easily into a long history of activist video. But the live stream decenters the big event in favor of the casual banality of everyday life in a democratic public space. This transfer of function is possible in large part because the immortalization of the big event, and of the police misconduct that comes with it, has been so effectively farmed out to thousands of citizen videographers. It's hardly necessary anymore to have an official video-activist team affiliated with the movement to organize documentation of actions, as was once common. (Indeed, the live stream is spectacularly ill suited to fulfill that function: When protesters were being arrested en masse on the Brooklyn Bridge, over nineteen thousand people tried to watch the live video online, and the feed sputtered and went down for long stretches of time.)
The live stream's redirection of our attention from single zap action to ongoing occupation parallels precisely the evolution of tactics represented by these protests. If structural film's long eventless expanses and experimental video art's intentional glitches and errors (I think, for instance, of Joan Jonas's glorious Vertical Roll , in which that once-common televisual hiccup incessantly interrupts a video image) can teach us how to understand the live stream, perhaps the live stream is teaching us how to understand Occupy Wall Street. The movement is, as so many have observed, one that fetishizes process. (It can hardly be an accident that among the most professionally produced segments to emerge from the movement so far is an eight-minute minidocumentary about consensus.) Yes, the occupiers' process is inefficient. But efficiency has helped bring about our current crisis, with money and jobs zipping frictionlessly around the globe, people sliding past one another encased in cars or in iPhone reveries. The protests remind us of this. They — and the live stream more than any other mode of observing the movement, short of going in person to a site of occupation — insist on the value of the slow and the processual, the wisdom inside every individual (recall consensus's Quaker roots), the righteousness of sitting awhile with questions instead of hastening to swathe ourselves in the moth-eaten false security of answers.
I am seduced by these ideas, but not completely. It's now Thursday night. I can't stop watching the General Assembly meeting, which is so enormous that the people's mic has to repeat everything twice, a pair of waves rippling back from the center. Hundreds of people have split off into smaller circles to discuss the possibility of a more streamlined decision-making structure. Watching from my living room as the breakout groups commence their report-backs, I feel wistful, homesick.
The next item on the agenda is a proposal from the park's barely tolerated drum circle that the GA give them $8,000 to replace stolen instruments and an unspecified amount to help fund a second occupation site specifically for drummers. In effect, they are asking the GA to buy them off. I mute the stream. When I return half an hour later, the debate is still raging. I wonder whether the drummers might actually be infiltrators from the police. Another half hour later, I read on Twitter: "Drummer who didn't get money from GA tonight now yelling, cursing at members of GA at Zuccotti Park."
"Where's Occupydwayne?" one chat-room participant writes plaintively. From time to time, somebody types in a plea for the puppets to return. I know how they feel.