Finding the Audience: a review of the Immediate Impact conference by Helen Lee and Michael Zryd


Media network, a NYC-based information group dedicated to promoting independent social issue film and video, recently sponsored Immediate Impact: A Conference on Broadening the use of Social Issue Films and Videos. Among the close to 200 participants were producers, distributors, funders, programmers, exhibitors, cable television workers, teachers and writers, all mainly new York-based but with national constituencies.


Nine different sessions organized around three themes covered a wide range of issues concerning the use, form and effectiveness of media produced for the specific aim of social awareness and political change. The atmosphere was positive and lively, generating much discussion and debate among those who live and breathe media every day but who rarely have a change to regroup and reflect in such an intensive, comprehensive way. Hopes were pinned on the ‘90s for foregrounding censorship, reproductive freedom, racism, AIDS and other urgent issues in the public consciousness through independent media.


Video maker Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied) set the pace with a compelling keynote address centered on the nature and status of independent work. Speaking about the danger of cultural pluralism, he suggested, “Polite multiculturalism has as little value as directly mimicking the dominant.” Consider carefully the ideological positioning of producer, subject and audience, he noted, in trying to get to that elusive place of truth, which is a multi-layered truth anyway.


Showing clips from his tape Affirmations, he urged formal innovation, but not at the cost of alienating viewers or ghettoizing the project. Blending autobiography and allegory with academic discourse, he covered a great deal of territory but never lost sight of the ultimate goal: activating the viewer. As a “black, gay signifin’ butch queen,” however, Riggs’s vision of a new radical/political aesthetic is grounded in a forthright, uncompromising subjectivity.


The Question of Audience

“Building the Audience: Is Bigger Better?”

Moderator Lillian Jiminez of the Paul Robeson Fund for Film and Video and director of the National Latino Film and Video Festival posed the question, “Is Bigger Better?” in terms of quantity versus quality. Does one aim at a mass audience of serve specific communities? Social issue film and video is meant to empower the disempowered viewer; the quality of empowerment is thus crucial. Kate Horsefield of Video Data Bank described the benefit of “narrow-cast” strategies in reaching “a community where the tape really means something.” As Horsefield acknowledged, however, on its own this strategy offers little potential for mass impact. Media must also reach into larger audiences to find viewers not served by the industrial media complex. Multiple distribution networks and approaches are required.


An implicit assumption behind many distribution strategies is that there must be viewers who are longing for independent, alternative voices, if only we could find them. Should we throw alternative  images into the airwaves and hope alternative viewers catch them? This passive, arbitrary approach, while it attempts to combat corporate interests’ massive domination of media channels, lacks the focus and transformative potential of more viewer-specific strategies.


Patricia Benoit (producer, Se Met Ko) eloquently focused the issue by insisting we begin by asking why we are making media. Her answer—social activism—demands that makers and distributors work toward goals which make quality and quantity relative to specific contexts. Benoit, who addresses issues facing the Haitian community in the United States, has a limited audience because the work must speak directly to viewers who speak Creole. For her, smaller is better within the context of a mass American audience, but in terms of the Haitian community, bigger is better. Benoit noted the temptations of trying to reach a larger audience: debilitating stereotypes of Haitians and AIDS and voudon demand correction, and funding agencies are impressed by demographics. Nonetheless, the burden of providing not only a text but a context for a mass American audience would diffuse the impact of her primary target of intervention, the Haitian community. As she says, “Right now, speaking to America is icing on the cake.”


Money was another issue that divided distribution approaches. Gretchen Dykstra of national Video Resources (NVR), funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke from the perspective of a funder of projects that investigate the marketplace with venture capital support. Her hard-headed, pragmatic approach insisted that, given the realities of the marketplace, the business of commnication requires audience numbers and producers need to make money to continue to make work. Dykstra looked in particular to cassette sales and rentals as a controllable distribution route. For Steve Pierce of Deep Dish Television, a self-distribution network organized by artists and producers which utilizes satellite technology to access a “home dish” market of some three million largely rural American homes, the priority is to get information out to as wide an audience as possible, and to ensure the information is used. Deep Dish encourages home taping and pirating as a viable form of grassroots distribution.



On the Issue of Form Vs. Content

Continuing the form vs. content debate, several video and filmmakers (including Riggs, Shu Lea Cheang and Annie Goldson) tried to broach that well-worn ground through their won work.


In Goldson’s considered critique of avant-gardism, she risked caricaturing both the avant-garde and popular audiences, but her main points, if commonplace, were well-taken: the rapidity with which experimental, self-reflective technique are reappropriated and absorbed into the mainstream, and the realization that television viewers do read against the grain.


Cheang’s ironic delivery displayed the ambivalence at work in being identified as an “artist of colour”—form and content in one body. In the conversion of her video, Color Schemes, into an installation for the Whitney Museum, she evoked the distinctions between art space and community-oriented art and their subsequent collapse with the multicultural mandate. Riggs was the most helpful about the crossover potential of community-specific work to transcend its original intended audience. Basic conflicts of identity, sexuality, individuality and self, while located in one particular person or story, can appeal to a broader group. In his own project of reintegrating black gay men into the black community-or, for that matter, translating any one story to an audience at large-all the panelists agreed that one cannot forsake entertainment values.



What makes a Commmunity Media Active?

The answer to this question was unequivocally clear: communities make community media active. Frances Negron-Muntaner spoke with impassioned clarity of her experience confronting several of the bugaboos of independent production while making AIDS In the Barrio: Eso No Me Pasa A Mi. She noted that communities can be neither romanticized as freely incorporating all difference nor understood as single-identity groups. Negron-Muntaner and her co-producer began making AIDS In the Barrio to fill what they assumed was a gap in the community’s exposure to AIDS education. After researching local AIDS resources, however, they discovered the information was there but the practice of AIDS prevention was not. The tape, then, needed to activate its viewers, not passively inform them. Strategies of entertainment, identification and humour were reclaimed as both appropriate and effective. Negron-Muntaner also wrestled with the question of the relation between the identities of the makers and the tape. Would a reproduction staff including herself (a university-educated lesbian feminist) and white non-community-based technical staff be compromised by definition? Her fears of misrepresentation vanished in the face of how the tape was used; conditions of reception (the make-up of the community and routes of engagement) overrule conditions of production.


Panelists’ accounts of the variety and openness of audience readings challenged the absolute imperative of a work’s integrity. Audiences can find value in the loosest and least professional of works-as America’s Funniest Home Videos suggests. Humour, low-tech authenticity and recognition are powerful and popular techniques. Louis Massiah of Scribe Video Center noted television’s advantage over theatrical exhibition is that its space of viewing allows us to talk back. 


The self-conscious integrity of makers was also questioned: good intentions do not guarantee social effectiveness. Interestingly, this humbling realization allowed many participants to speak of relaxing the anxieties of co-option and compromise. Activists who wish to intervene in culture can no longer ignore or remain aloof from the fact that contemporary culture is media. There is no position, theoretical or practical, outside mass media-or if there is, it is so removed as to be inadequate as a base of intervention.


Moe Foner (Bread and Roses Cultural Project) underlined the importance of positive audience address, recalling a lesson of his decades of documentary and labour organization experience. Through media is inextricable from culture, media’s demands should not overwhelm the broader goals of activists.


Meanwhile, Karen Hirsch of Greenpeace, a relative newcomer to community media, spoke of the remarkable ingenuity of local organizers undertaking what she called “Tupperware” videotape distribution Hirsch celebrated the “pirating potential” of VHS. Groups that have successfully used educational Greenpeace videos to rally community resistance to waste dumps have, on their own initiative, sent copies of the tape to the next town targeted by waste disposal companies. This grassroots distribution is so community-directed that Greenpeace if often the last to know their tape was used.



Makers as Users

Low-tech video formats like VHS, 8mm and Hi-8, with their accessibility, low cost and ease of shooting and post production, have narrowed the traditional division between producers and communities; community members can now make images for political, educational and expressive purposes with a minimum of expertise and capital.


Hank Linhart of RENEW, a video collective in North Brooklyn working on community development and environmental issues, pointed to the utility of portable video formats for investigative work. Linhart’s community, Greenpoint, has recently become a popular site for garbage transfer stations. Rats, seagulls, smell and dumping have disfigured the neighbourhood while other environmental abuses like pushing garbage into waterways threatens larger communities. RENEW’s video documentation of these abuses, used to lobby the State assembly and City Hall, has helped close twelve sites.


The purely utilitarian nature of the tapes dictates some interesting formal qualities. An 8mm shooting format, bumped to 3/4” for editing, is released on VHS, but the loss in image quality accentuates the image’s poser-as-evidence. In addition, much of the tape is left silent. The tape is not self-explanatory and so requires a member of RENEW to accompany the tape as a lecturer. The strategy guarantees that the lobby target gets  the message, since the presence of the accompanying collective member verifies that the tape gets seen and does not sit on a shelf.


Chris Bratton helped found Youth Television, a collective of independent producers and educators developing critical media studies curriculum for high schools. Their package, Teaching TV, features, student-made work. Though he praise the accessibility of low-tech, Bratton warned against notions that any technology is inherently progressive: putting a video camera in the hands of a student does not automatically teach critical thinking. Bratton sees his project as part of a larger movement in American education to expand the importance of the school as a site for community action.


Alex Juhasz spoke about her experience as project director of Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise (WAVE). Her earlier AIDS education projects alerted her to a lack of attention to the group most recently affected by AIDS: low-income women. Wrestling with many of the same issues of identity and class as negro-Muntaner, Juhasz directed more energy to the process of production. One-third of the project’s budget was allocated to distribution, however, and group members continue to work as resource persons accompanying their tapes.


Robert Nignott of House of Color (“a collective founded to combat dominant media representations through the production and distribution of media by and about gays and lesbians of colour”) gave a presentation which unintentionally exposed some of the contradictions of representation in identity politics. Mignott screened I Object, which he described as a “not low-cost but no-cost” production which was nevertheless the most technically sophisticated, and theoretically ambitious work on the panel. Ironically, the aestheticized formal surface of the tape coincided with a failure to communicate the makers’ message. The tape’s opening collage of media images (from Mapplethorpe to Madonna), driven by a back-beat of Grace Jones, is followed by a series of lyrical and erotic portraits of collective members, as strikingly composed as the iconography of the collage. The effect, a celebration of pleasure and difference, did not articulate a critique of dominant media-if anything, the aestheticization of the body in the opening montage seemed to be appropriated for the closing images.


House of Color’s motivation for making the tape privileged their own identity as makers (“images about and by gays and lesbians of color”), but had targeted no specific audience, which diffused the tape’s effectiveness. When Mignott screened I Object for high school audiences, discussion was limited to some students’ homophobic reactions, provoking other students’ defense of the House of Color’s freedom of speech. In the age of Helms, this debate is important but begs other questions. These ironies suggest the limitations of production strategies in social-issue media which depend more on authorship and identity than on a consideration of reception and audience.


Originally published in Independent Eye Vol. 12 No. 2 (Winter 1991)