Postmodern Media Communities

(first published in Misa Free Press: The Media Magazine of Southern Africa, No 4. 1995, Media Institute of Southern Africa, Windhoek, Namibia.)

Portable video use has exploded world-wide. Since its appearance in the late 1960’s video has become the medium of choice for larger and larger numbers of people. Community, gay and feminist organizations, environmental and social advocacy groups, mainstream and alternative political and cultural formations in North America and Europe have made active use of video for information gathering, political agitation, artistic experimentation and the distribution and dissemination of local and transnational debates and ideas. Very powerful claims have been made for this technology. One of the most important, has been that portable video has initiated a new era in the use of visual instruments, because its availability and relative cheapness have encouraged radical changes in creative and political work with images both at a grassroots and mainstream level. This claim, accompanied by the idea that portable video is also an instrument of democratization, has been the impulse for much of the written analysis and video production of the last three decades.[1]

In Southern or third world countries, video has been embraced in much the same manner as radio was for a previous generation, as a technology for training, education, organizing, information gathering, political agitation and cultural preservation. Even more importantly, the appropriation of video has been seen as a key way for economically deprived communities to gain some measure of democratic control over information and communication sources now controlled either by the state or multi-national corporations. This grassroots activity has had a profound influence on the way in which very different communities in many parts of the world have thought about communications. I will only mention a few examples here: Kayapo Indians in Brazil, porta-packs on their shoulders waging politics through the dissemination of information [2]; satellite receivers on the rooftops of houses in India which are used for formal and informal networks of information and India’s broad based democratic media group, CENDIT which makes extensive use of video in rural communities; organisations such as Video News Service and FAWO in South Africa, New Dawn in Namibia, TV for Development in Uganda, the Capricorn Video Unit in Zimbabwe, Centro de Trabalho Indigenista in Brazil and Asia Visions in the Philippines; Videoazimut, an international video organization which represents the activities of thirty of the major groups and institutions using video in Latin America, Africa and Asia, etc..

There are positive and negative aspects to these activities. The diasporic character and history of the vast majority of the world’s communities, the relentless problems of the postcolonial era, the environmental and social consequences of overdevelopment and underdevelopment have transformed the context within which new technologies like video operate. There are very few communities in the South not involved to some degree with emerging technologies of communication. These links between the old and the new, between societies in transition and communities undergoing a variety of complex changes, has altered the landscape of meanings within which communications technologies operate. However one puts it (the shift from the modern to the postmodern, the movement from the colonial to the postcolonial), this hybridization has overwhelmed the more conventional critical and practical approaches which have been taken to technologies such as video, television and radio. The crucial question is what conceptual, theoretical and historical tools does one have to evaluate these changes and their accompanying practices?

The MacBride Commission [3] in 1980 called for “…structural changes to equalize and balance the world communication’s order. Such balance is necessary, according to the proponents of the new order, if development - economically, politically, socially and culturally - is to be effectively promoted. This approach sees communication as the infrastructure of and precondition for economic growth, and thus, development.” [4] While I agree with the underlying assumptions of the MacBride Report, many of the categories in place for analysing the work which has grown out of this particular notion of communications, ranging from assumptions of participatory democracy to the horizontal nature of collective work with video, to the various paradigms for understanding the role of mainstream media have been very weak. There has been a lack of critical and evaluative work, although there are many descriptive examples which end up justifying development and community work with media such as video. [5]

At another level, the advent of cheaper and cheaper camcorders with near professional results (especially with Hi-8 Video) has encouraged the proliferation of informal networks of communication and exchange. An example of this is Video News Services in different parts of the South which operate through the exchange and placement of videocassettes in small communities. These cassettes have become a precious commodity as they are often proposed as the only source of alternative news for groups of people who have limited access to broadcast technology. Video Sewa operates in India and is a unique example of the grassroots applications of lowcast media: “Video SEWA is the video cooperative of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, trade union of some 30,000 poor, self-employed women in Ahmedabad, India.” (Stuart 45) Videoazimut or The International Coalition for Audiovisuals for Development and Democracy (located in Montreal, Canada) has grown dramatically over the last four years. It works on the premise that alternative sources of information will encourage dramatic cultural, personal and political transformations in the societies and people who make use of new technologies (they are now actively pursuing satellite and broadcast media to enlarge the distribution base for their work). Videoazimut is made up of well over twenty organizations world-wide, from Peru and Mozambique to India and Hong Kong. Each of these often represent regions rather than countries, and have a large number of smaller groups with whom they are associated. Videoazimut has become a clearing house for the distribution of hundreds of videotapes shot by these groups. [6]

There is a need to more fully explore why this type of investment is being made in video and whether it reflects an idealism for which the criteria of evaluation are often self-serving. The active implication of non-governmental organizations in these efforts to spread the use of video, must be analysed as a Western phenomenon, very much related to notions of development, aid and economic growth. Most of the NGO’s in the field are supported by Western governments and aid organizations. They are managing video in much the same manner as they might approach a project on educating peasant farmers in the better use of their land. In other words, the medium is being treated as if can serve the function of a formal and informal educational tool. In addition video, like radio, is often described by NGO’s as one of the most important vehicles for giving a voice to the disenfranchised. [7] The educational and media model in place here is derived from Paulo Freire and his work on the problems of literacy with South American peasants. [8]

The philosophy of ‘giving a voice’ was recently critiqued in an editorial in the newsletter, “Interadio” which is produced by the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (also an NGO):

“More than any other mass communication medium, radio is accessible, affordable and easily appropriated by groups of people whose demands have traditionally been ignored by the mainstream media. Many marginalized groups are turning to community radio as a forum for expression, by-passing the corporate and state media rather than fighting to access them. Community radio often speaks of the need “to have a voice” and of the necessity of establishing community stations as independent voices. Community radio has also become known as the “voice of the voiceless” in many parts of the world. However, while the term voiceless may well refer to those who have traditionally been denied access to the media, labeling community radio as the voice of the voiceless demeans the very essence of community radio. The phrase voiceless overlooks centuries of oral tradition which preceded radio technology (traditions which are especially strong in Asia, Africa and among indigenous populations). It can also be interpreted as implying that people do not have a voice in their communities and in their everyday lives unless they have some kind of access to the media. [9]

This is an important caution, but the issues it raises are generally overlooked, if not subsumed by the ongoing need to keep producing videotapes and radio shows. In order to more fully understand how cultures in transition interact with new technologies, the communities affected would have to ‘educate’ the outsiders who bring the technology to them. Yet even the distinctions in operation here between the inside and the outside have been undermined, if not overcome, by the rapid spread of communications technologies. The result is that few societies are now without some experience of video, television and radio. The various distinctions of “otherness” which have guided the introduction of video, have changed almost entirely. The result are social contexts in which communities have developed sophisticated media strategies at an aesthetic and political level, often far removed from the concerns of the NGO groups who bring the media with them.

Yet there is more to the notion of voice than what Vinebohm suggests. One of the main assumptions of community based media activities in both the North and the South is that of empowerment. Voice stands in for all of the processes which supposedly lead to enhanced notions of community control of information and knowledge. “Dialogue is at the very heart of community access television. For this is a medium that is (or is supposed to be) interactive, user-defined and operating horizontally. A sharp contrast indeed to the centralized, one-way, top-down flow pattern of conventional media. This alternative communications system…has enormous potential to liberate the public from the controlled flow of information, experience and thought.” [10] This quote summarizes many of the concerns of the alternative video movement in both the South and the North. Aside from mentioning the hegemonic influences of mass media (which foregrounds notions of dominance, monopoly and democratic response) there is the key thought of liberation from control, the opening up of hitherto closed spaces of experience and the unveiling of different ways of thinking.

Goldberg doesn’t define the meaning of “community,” and the resulting sense she has that people, once empowered in the use of the medium, will gain a new understanding of their own viewpoints on the world, if not of their politics. Why and how does the experience of images create the open endedness which Goldberg proposes? “Like the medical treatments of the barefoot doctors, community television was a shared tool belonging to a community of equals. However, in the community TV model, the distinction between ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’ breaks down. The medium becomes a tool of community self-healing.” (Goldberg, 10)

Empowerment begins with the presumption that something is missing either in the community or in people’s lives. The intervention of the videomakers, accompanied by the use of the medium on the part of ‘ordinary’ people, supposedly leads to shifts in identity and further claims of self-determination. As we shall see, these claims must be examined very carefully if we are to avoid idealizing video and its effects. Video activism is framed by an urgency which is intimately related to the grassroots use which has been made of the medium. The sense that video will somehow break through the smoke screens manufactured by mainstream media and communicate directly to people in the community, has played an important role in the way in which commentators, critics and analysts have responded to video as a medium. This deeply felt and quite symbiotic link between theory and practice, is what distinguishes the writing on video, from writing on other cultural activities. It is also the focal point for practitioners.

Yet, how different is the creative and political use of a medium for communicative purposes, from the viewing of videotapes or shows on television? There is an underlying premise that viewing images is somehow less effective than working with the medium and then seeing the results. This is based on the presumption that viewing is a passive activity. A paradoxical bind comes into play here. The activity of creating meaningful messages centres on the fact that they will ultimately be viewed, as much by creators as by outsiders. So the practical and theoretical problems of spectatorship, comprehension and articulation are continually in play both within mainstream and alternative contexts. The assumption that the former is a place of passivity contributes to a poorly thought out anger at the popular cultural frameworks within which all electronic images circulate. Even the appropriation of these images sees television as a cultural aggressor.

We must, I believe, begin to reevaluate community media like video, particularly in those contexts where it can play an important role in bringing communities together, and in creating alternative modes of information and exchange. The reevaluation must work with existing cultural formations, must understand and not underestimate the strength and uniqueness of local environments, and must try and avoid the often anti-theoretical orientation of video activists in the field. Only then will it be possible to transform the parameters of grassroots work with the media so that the benefits can be shared by everyone.

[1] See, Clifford Scherer, “The Videocassette Recorder and Information Inequity,” Journal of Communication , 39 (1989): 94-103; Lili Berko, “Surveying the Surveilled: Video, Space and Subjectivity,” Quarterly Review of Film andVideo 14-1/2 (1992):61-91; Sean Cubitt, “Timeshift: On Video Culture” (New York: Routledge, 1991); Manuel Alvarado,”Video World-Wide” (London: John Libbey, 1988); John Hanhardt (ed.) “Video Culture: A Critical Investigation,”(Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith, 1988); the special issue of “Communications,” entitled, “Video,” published by Seuil, Paris in 1988.

[2] See the work of Terence Turner, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago in “Visual Anthropology Review,” 7-2 (1991) and Michael Eaton, “Amazonian Video,” in Sight and Sound.2:4 (1992) and Judith Shulevitz, “Tribes and Tribulations,” in Film Comment, 26:2 (1990) and “Video in the Changing World,” (eds.) Nancy Thede and Alain Ambrosi,(Montreal: Black Rose, 1991).

[3] See the “International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems” (The MacBride Commission), “Many Voices, One World”(London: Kogan Page, 1980) and “World Communication Report,” (Paris, France: UNESCO, 1989). The latter lists a long series of reports which have come out of various countries and constituencies.

[4] Hamid Mowlana and Laurie J. Wilson, “The Passing of Modernity: Communication and the Transformation of Society” (New York: Longman, 1990) 58.

[5] See in particular the essay by Sara Stuart, “Access to Media: Placing Video in the Hands of the People,” Media Development 36-4 (1989): 42-45 and Chinyere Stella Okunna, “Communication for Self-reliance Among Rural Women in Nigeria,” Media Development 39-1 (1992): 46-49.

[6] See Clips (The Newsletter of Videoazimut ) No 4 - October 1993: “Founded in 1990, brings together people from the world of independent and alternative video and television from every continent. Together, its members act to promote the democratic practice of communication. They aim to broaden the participation by communities and movements from the South and the North in sound and image production.” np.

[7] See “Getting Involved: Communication for Participatory Development,” by Ad Boeren, pp.47-60 and “Traditional and Group Media Utilization in Indonesia,” by Manfred Oepen, pp.61-78, in The Empowerment of Culture: Development Communication and Popular Media, eds. Ad Boeren and Kes Epskamp (The Hague: Centre for the Study of Education in Developing Countries, 1992).

[8] Paulo Freire, “Education for Critical Consciousness,” (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

[9] Lisa Vinebohm, “The Power of Voice,” Interadio 5-2 (1993): 2

[10] Kim Goldberg, “The Barefoot Channel: Community Television as a Tool for Social Change,” (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1990) 6.