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London Counter Culture and People Power of the Nineties

My interest is in political will formation through visual culture. I’m interested in this in contexts of oral culture and a popular discourses.

I put a video record of J18, the 1999 carnival against capitalism in the City of London on a DVD with a record of the tributes on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The juxtapositon was meant to generate a creative friction. It seemed to me that the people involved in these two actions would rarely be the same. And yet both actions share an expression of anti-establishment sentiment in a predominantly visual culture form. They are also both placed public spaces without any official sanction.

The creative friction I had hoped for has not occured spontaneously to my knowledge. left leaning people who enjoy the record of J18 will not watch the Diana tributes. I thought that maybe it was time for me to try to be explicit about what I had intended. The ideal form of this active archive material is as an installation in a gallery space projected fairly large onto facing walls. This may have provided the friction I had intended, at lest on an intuitive level, but the installation has not been realised.

My hope for world change based on a widespread democracy requires the sort of groundswell of what is sometimes labelled ‘middle England’ that seemed to be the majority who were making their tribute to Diana. Drawings, collage, photos, objects, poems, statements, banners – the renage of expression was diverse. These are the sort of people who support ending ‘Third World Debt’ and might have marched in the million or so who turned up to oppose the second war in Iraq but who are unlikely to go so far as to attend a carnival against capitalism. I didn’t see it as an ideal end result of consciousness raising but as a potent field of discourse.

There is a power to direct media of public expression that is only realised when that expression is focused in some context. many of the messages to Diana might have been sentimental and even insipid but the overal effect was powerful. It provided a dialogic ground for more pointed comments on her campaign against landmines and her involvement with excluded groups. Also common were calls for Diana to be queen with the implied treasonous critique of the monarchy.

I wanted the radical fringe who attended J18 to start to think about what a more general democratic visual culture might look like. And in fact the broad left to take the idea of a popular cultural expression more seriously. If we are really to be free from the amoralism of the corporate state and rich who direct it and the media, we must think of ways of widening democracy. The Diana tribute created a vignette of what such a culture might look like.

So for me J18 was the bait but the real message for the anarcho left was do you really want a revolution of the multitude or is it just about feeding a radical identity that’s really going nowhere? Demos and Protests are important but perhaps it is more important to set up fields of lifeworld discourse which are open to all, on a big scale and, last but not least, led from the base. Its gotta be a common as the scene of active communication rather then the ‘coffee shop’ of the Enlightenment.

The was a comment the other day about how the Diana tributes was a boring and hard to watch. and I’d like to say something about that. Documentary forms have given us so many preconceptions about what we expect from a factual movie. An early experience for me was watching Andy Warhols long films of the Empire State Building all night or someone asleep. But I watched them at the Arts Lab Drury lane in a room with mattresses on the floor. A good way of being able to stay up in London overnight. So maybe expecting the same from someone viewing a DVD on their laptop is too much. Still to leave out the sentimental and all the insipid would be not to represent the event accurately at all. Obviously it might have been better to represent boredom by signifying it with a metaphor rather than with repetition but I just didn’t find a good visual metaphor.

I got fed up with those agit docs that are all rockin’ soundtracks, six second edits and up-beat commentaries – just competing with commercial advertising norms. There just one positive message to be put over (but its too often only shown to the converted).  To me that’s a large slice of reality that’s cut out. Things take time. To me thats an active archive and it probably is best viewed as an installation rather than as a private solo leisure activity. The active archive is a pedagogic object that is still capable of multiple interpretations.

Then again I’m not precious. Once its out there in its almost raw footage form then I don’t mind if a jazzy editor wants to sharpen it all up to some purpose. Its just the idea that there is no access to a more downbeat version. 

My heart is with the J18 revellers but my hope is with the down home art on the railings of Buckingham Palace.


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