eipcp transversal instituent practices
06 2007

eventum et medium

Event and Orgiastic Representation in Media Activism

Translated by Aileen Derieg

Gerald Raunig

Gerald Raunig


Aileen Derieg (translation)





instituent practices

When representation discovers the infinite within itself, it no longer appears as organic representation but as orgiastic representation: it discovers within itself the limits of the organised; tumult, restlessness and passion underneath apparent calm. It rediscovers monstrosity.
Gilles Deleuze[1]

At first glance the relationship between event and medium seems to be a simple one: the event appears as the material that is transferred by a medium as means into a different aggregate state, into that of representation. The term medium by itself seems to suggest that what is involved is a ‘middle’, a ‘mean’, a ‘mediator’, ‘mediation’: in other words, the medium as the middle between event and representation, between action and information; in short, as the means to the end of information transfer. In this perspective of mediation we immediately find ourselves in the paradigm of representation and thus at a hierarchically linear notion of information and enlightenment. A linearity like this implies a division into those who are informed and those who are to be informed, a dichotomous understanding of action and representation, and a rigid separation between media production and media consumption. The twofold principle of political and aesthetic representation, on which this series of dichotomies is based, is what I would like to call ‘organic representation’ here and distinguish from a different form of ‘orgiastic representation’.

A distinction of this kind also has some influence on the understanding of the phenomena that are often somewhat confusingly gathered under the term media activism. The coherent linearity of action and representation is often conceived as an organic movement in the discursive context of activists as well, such as when the aim of spectacular actions mainly consist of bringing ‘neglected topics’ to the front page of mainstream media through the action. Guerrilla communication methods, in the broadest sense, are often used for this, meaning that messages are not communicated in quite such a direct and linear way. Essentially, however, this still involves an organic relationship between the spectacular action and its representation that is planned as precisely as possible.

The Greenpeace dinghy action in June 2007 on the coast of the Baltic Sea by Heiligendamm in Germany, for instance, was described – at least in the argumentation of the actors – as following the pattern of an organic representation. A total of eleven Greenpeace dinghies approached the beach at Heiligendamm at high speed, where the heads of government of the G8 states were meeting under high security conditions. Three boats penetrated into the security zone around the G8 area. Because they were difficult to locate, the security authorities reacted relatively late, but then with full force. Five over-sized police boats took up the chase, including a heavy patrol boat from the water police.

On the surface of the announcements, the Greenpeace activists intended to convey simple messages: at the end of the action the crew of a dinghy unfurled a banner with the not particularly creative motto ‘G8 act now!’. Greenpeace subsequently added that the activists had wanted to present a petition with a demand for climate protection to the heads of state on the beach.

Presenting a petition to the G8 would only have strengthened their acceptance as pseudo-representative organs. Yet the goal of the spectacular action was probably not at all this purported goal, but rather the representation of strategically and precisely planned images in the mass media. To this extent, this practice of Greenpeace is to be seen as an intervention in the production of media images, in other words as ‘media activism’, to a certain extent, yet always within the paradigm of organic representation. In the logic of the battle of David against Goliath, the most important image was always the one in which a police boat (Goliath) rammed a small Greenpeace dinghy (David) with full force and at high speed, finally running over it and tipping the Greenpeace crew overboard. This image then went through all the major media as planned; the meticulously prepared stratification of the space of representation, the distribution of the roles of police and activists, the conveyance of the implied message ‘David will win!’ worked.

Greenpeace gave a textbook demonstration of the logic of the transfer of messages from the action to media representation along a more or less straight line. This attribution of the action to the paradigm of organic representation is by no means intended to denounce Greenpeace as apolitical; these kinds of intervention in the mainstream media can certainly achieve political effects. However, if they are not in any way interested in changing the production apparatus of the media itself, or if alternative and tactical media are even conceived in the same way as quasi-neutral transmission apparatuses, but of alternative or counter-hegemonic representation, then there is a fatal reductionism to be found in this. We encounter this reductionism on both sides, which apparently do not work so separately: not only mainstream media but also alternative media often tend to see themselves as an indifferent, empty middle that touches neither the event nor its representation.

These kinds of unquestioned notions of the neutral transmission of truths primarily indicate the enormous gap that opens up between sophisticated media theories and the practice of those who constitute the notion of the medium as a middle with their modes of subjectivation. If we do not want to conceive of this middle as a vacant market for the trading of information goods, two preconditions must be clarified: one is that the transmitting of the medium itself is never to be understood as neutral, and more important, the specific form of the transmission can change the medium as a production apparatus. Walter Benjamin already investigated this eighty years ago in his essays on Bertolt Brecht’s art practice,[2] among others, and Brecht himself developed his experiences of the alienation effect of the Epic Theater and the Learning Play in his radio theory.[3] The relevant genealogical lines reached a new quality and intensity in the 1970s, especially in Italy and Germany, most recently growing in significance with the increasing hybridisation of electronic media in the context of the anti-globalisation movement. Even though capitalistic appropriation and reterritorialisation were never far behind, and although this also meant that ever new forms of orgiastic representation were integrated in the fields of the organic, in the times and spaces of their invention and early development new media always also challenged questions about their emancipatory function and application, especially in terms of thwarting the organic logic of action and representation. Understanding the conjunction of social movements and new media in all its complexity also means not reducing these processes of thwarting in the reflection and theoretisation to the simplest aspects of conveying information, but rather grasping them as multifaceted phenomena.

It is too simple to consider media activism solely from the one-sided perspective of the paradigm of organic representation, as a secondary factor in a linear movement of transmission from the action to a suitable representation of this action. Besides, organic representations are not a matter of a linear logic of depicting ‘reality’ but rather the permanent productivity of representation, of the production of ‘reality’ in and through representation. Media go far beyond linear concepts of mediation as middle and means.

There is also another idea of the middle, other than that over hastily evoked by the term of mediation. Even in antiquity, the Latin use of medium, for instance in the formulations rem in medio ponere (publicly presenting an issue) or in medium quaerere (demanding something for all, as a common good), suggests another meaning of medium: the medium as a middle suggesting an open, vague concept of the public sphere, of public space, of the common. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe this middle as a raging torrent that carries everything away with it, a line of flight, in which everything is accelerated, in which the concatenation of singularities takes place. In this kind of orgiastic concatenation through the middle, it is no longer a matter of supplying the constituted power of mass media with new contents but rather of constant attempts to recompose, to change and to re-invent the production apparatuses, to create a constituent power in media activism as well.

Yet, in the filmic representation of the heterogeneity of this constituent power – to the extent that it insists on oppositional truth as unbroken counter-information – there is in fact a danger of homogenising this heterogeneity and creating effects similar to those of the discredited spectacle machine. The video Showdown in Seattle is not only something like a founding document of Indymedia, but viewed as a product from today’s perspective (after eight years of impact in different contexts), it was also highly influential in spreading the representations of an event that was and still is very important for the anti-globalisation movement. In this way, the video became a frequently reproduced or imitated source not only of image production but also for anti-globalisation action – even though this source was admittedly not always free from dualisms, formulas and clichés.[4] Nevertheless, counter-hegemonic images of resistance and insurrections should not be too hastily scorned – by a sophisticated art discourse, for example.[5] The necessarily spontaneous and precarious production of signs, statements and images of insurrection is a form that generates specific and structurally conditioned problems, but it is different to specific forms of mediation of the mainstream media in enabling a further development of media activism as orgiastic representation. Unlike the paradigm of organic representation, an orgiastic medium appears not only as a pure means of information, of mediating an event, but instead concatenates with the event, ultimately becoming an event itself. Eventum et medium: in the concatenation of event and medium, the middle as line of flight does not simply produce representations, but is a component of the event. Here the signs, statements and images do not function as representing or documenting objects or subjects or the world, but rather as letting the world happen.[6]

Hence media are orgiastic in their role as a possible condition for events; as an opening up of the possible, as an endless expansion of representation into the orgiastic, as the potentiality of the event and as the actualisation of this potential. Thus the video Showdown in Seattle became a line in the event that was actualised in the concatenation of Seattle, the concatenation of bodies, but also of slogans, Internet communication, the images and statements of the Indymedia video.[7] Media activism does not limit its function to documenting political movements, but instead happens in the medium becoming activism.

At about the same time that the anti-globalisation movement was flourishing in Seattle with, among others, Zapatista strategies, a precarious endeavour of media work developed in Mesoamerica. While manifold references to the Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos spread around the whole world, between 1999 and 2004 the collective Kinoki Lumal[8] sought to take the opposite path: Joaquín Santiz López, Manuel Guzman Ruis, Juan Santiz Gómez, Alberto Vallejo Reyna and Thomas Waibel organised a community cinema specifically in the marginalised and infrastructurally disadvantaged territories in Chiapas.[9] In the tradition of post-revolutionary Soviet documentary film practice (Vertov, Medvedkin), upheavals in film around and after 1968 (Godard, Gorin, Rouch), and the altermedia practice of alternative media in the last thirty years (Radio Alice, PaperTigerTV, later Indymedia, Telestreet, etc), models of communicative media work were to be tried out in south-eastern Mexico in the form of a travelling cinema. Thomas Waibel describes the experiences of the collective between 1999 and 2004 (until turning over all the equipment and the entire endeavour to the autonomous council of Ricardo Flores Magón) in his dissertation The Masks of Resistance: Spirituality and Politics in Mesoamerica,[10] but not without articulating the problems, the technical, gender-specific and economic limitations of grassroots media work in the context of attacks on the Zapatista revolt and of low intensity repression.

Kinoki Lumal’s media work, which was patiently built up over the course of a year in video workshops in rural cultural centres in Chiapas, centred around the organisation of a community cinema in the social bases of the Zapatista revolt. This travelling cinema was realised in close cooperation with the villages, village communities and collectives visited by using a system of mobile projections. It usually took place in the marginalised regions of Chiapas with little public infrastructure. The equipment for the travelling cinema was carried by the operators themselves from village to village, where visitors could choose films from a small archive. In this way the collective established participation on an equal level and intense situations of exchange in the different places. In the course of their endeavours, Kinoki Lumal went beyond the self-organised presentation of films: various video documentaries, photo reports and radio features were created in several waves. The first two short films were a response to the desire to transport the activity of the collective through media. They describe the arrival and screenings of the travelling cinema in an indigenous village community and the first results from various workshops devoted to dealing with the medium of film.[11]

To the extent that the cinema screenings were repeated in the different local situations, however, it no longer seemed sufficient simply to employ filmic means to present, reflect and discuss political and media activities. In a further step, the visited groups articulated the desire for a more strongly self-determined media expression of everyday work. This resulted in a first documentary about the cultivation, harvesting, processing and selling of coffee and the associated questions of social organisation which was made together with the Society for Social Solidarity Ernesto Che Guevara.[12]

Paraphrasing Deleuze/Guattari, Thomas Waibel calls the practice of Kinoki Lumal a ‘media desiring-machine’. The orgiastic quality of this desiring-machine became especially evident in the vast extent to which the organic linearity of action and representation was broken open. Instead of being crushed by the contents and the medium, the protagonists set out to actualise more and more desires in relation to the media work. They did not aim at an exercise in the classically organic form of representation with its separation of production and consumption, but rather at producing a communicative space in which reception and production, medium and event converge. And particularly in this way, a lost space of the political was re-established:

The activity of the travelling cinema contributed to tying into the social network again, which had been damaged in the course of military conflicts. On the one hand it fostered reflection on the representability of what is one’s own through the media production of subjectivity, and on the other hand it created situations through the screenings every evening in the villages that were not commonplace, situations in which the viewers could gather regardless of their political, religious or ideological differences.[13]

Especially the emergence of this space of filmic presentation and production beyond the compulsion to identitary consensus indicates that Kinoki Lumal’s media work broke open the hierarchy of mediation and produced the middle of the medium, the specific public sphere and participation, in which the straight line from representation to action is disrupted. Through this disruption the order of organic representation is inverted, the wild mixture of orgiastic representation diffuses. The film screening is less a representation than becoming itself an event, which in turn leads to new events of media production. A chain of events not strung together but flowing and fleeing through the middle. When the straight line of representation and action is disrupted in this middle, new lines of flight emerge again and again, yet these are not just fleeing from the constituted power of conventional media use but creating a new constituent power.

The media collective also worked on relatively classic documentary forms, such as the 2001 documentation of the famous journey of the Zapatista comandantes through Mexico. A delegation of twenty-two rebel commandantes marched for several weeks under the title La Marcha Color de la Tierra (‘March of the Colour of the Earth’) to the National Congress in the capital city to demand the inclusion of agreements that had been made in 1996 between the federal government and the rebels in the Mexican constitution. Members of the media collective accompanied the journey in order to present a filmic edition of the journey as soon as the comandantes returned to the rebellious Zapatista regions. Here too – similar to the case of Indymedia in Seattle – the attempt was to develop a suitable form for the representation of political events synchronously, as far as possible, with the events themselves. Despite substantial difficulties, the real-time documentation finally resulted in a videographic chronicle in six parts.[14]

What is interesting in this context is that the political tour de force of the Zapatista comandantes appeared to be less interesting to the participating indigenous communities than the documentation of forms of indigenous spirituality, which are undoubtedly closely linked with the Zapatista understanding of politics. In cooperation with a union of traditional corn farmers Kinoki Lumal had already produced a short film in 2001 about a ceremony for fertility in a red cave in the highlands of Chiapas.[15] After that, in the course of an invitation to Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala, a short media presentation of the cultural association Ahau Tepepul[16] was made, and finally the documentary film El Gran Abuelo Rilaj Mam (‘The Old Grandfather Rilajmam’).[17] Based on a ceremony of several days devoted to the dominant religious figure of an old grandfather, this documentary describes the different tales and social practices surrounding this spiritual tradition.

The various forms of cooperation, the continuous further development of participation, the exchange processes of media work constantly changed the production apparatus of Kinoki Lumal, never allowed the representations to become frozen in the organic. The close neighbouring zones of spirituality and sociality made it evident that local intensity in the overlapping of media production and reception was not translatable. In her essay on translating Kinoki Lumal’s media work to Europe, Hito Steyerl asks:

But what happens when the comandantes take off their ski masks? Which situations dominate their everyday lives? What characterises life in a zone of ‘low intensity war’? This is where Kinoki Lumal’s work starts – and with it the discomfiture of the metropolitan audience. Because what comes out from under the masks are ordinary indigenous people, not leftist superheroes. They work hard, they barter, they gossip, they drink and sometimes drag gods around.[18]

Unlike the documentation of the ‘March of the Colour of the Earth’ and the documentary summary of work with the autonomous institutions of Zapatista self-organisation,[19] which both met with interest in screenings outside Mesoamerica, the works about the link between spirituality and politics in indigenous ritual were not well received in Europe. Kinoki Lumal’s productions manage to avoid the trap of the ethnographic substantialisation of the Other, the peripheral, as well as the essentialisation of the traditional in treating local spirituality. However the collective’s productions, which refused the familiar iconography of Zapatista resistance, presenting images of everyday work or rituals instead of armed or disguised rebels, met with rejection or boredom in Europe. It remained impossible to feed these products of the process that had shifted medium and event into an indistinguishable and open middle back into the organic representation mechanisms of political activism and cinema in Europe.

What remains an open question is the problem of what happens to the orgiastic representation of media activism when it is torn out of the concatenation with the event and shifts into the organic. How can this transition be imagined an emancipatory one as well, instead of simply feeding spectacular cultural events and media spectacles? Beyond this, however, there is also the more general problem of the transnational, or rather translocal, concatenation of orgiastic representation: how can orgiastic representation develop beyond local experiences as a basis of experimentation for developing a translocal, non-representationist practice in which the medium is to be understood as concatenation and event, in which the endless orgiastic restlessness detaches itself from representation? Finally, how can this restless middle be actualised in every place of tumult, of insurrection, of passion, and not only in Chiapas, Seattle and Heiligendamm?

Many thanks for preliminary thoughts and revisions to Thomas Waibel and Isabell Lorey.

First published in Third Text 93

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p 42

[2] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, in Reflections, Schocken, New York, 1986, pp 220–238 and Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution, Semiotext(e), The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, especially the chapter ‘Spirit and Betrayal: German Activism of the 1910s’, pp 113–130.

[3] Bertolt Brecht, ‘Radiotheorie 1927 bis 1932’, in Gesammelte Werke 18, pp 117–134

[4] Hito Steyerl, ‘The Articulation of Protest’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0303/steyerl/en

[5] On the question of a fitting relationship between media activism and art criticism see Gerald Raunig, ‘The Document as Present Becoming’, in Sabine Schaschl-Cooper, Vit Havranek, Bettina Steinbrügge, eds, The Need to Document, JRP/Ringier, Zürich, 2005, pp 89–98.

[6] Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘Struggle, Event, Media’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1003/lazzarato/en. cf. also my two texts on “instituent practices”: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/raunig/en and http://eipcp.net/transversal/0507/raunig/en.

[7] Marion Hamm, ‘A r/c tivism in Physical and Virtual Spaces’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1203/hamm/en

[8] The name of the collective consists of the Russian neologism Kinoki (kino = cinema; oko = eye), invented in the 1920s, and the Mayan word lumal (= land and the community inhabiting it), so that the media collective’s self-description could be translated as ‘cinematic eye of our territories’.

[9] Information available at http://www.kinoki.at/lumal/index.htm

[10] The descriptive parts of the following paragraphs are largely based on this work: Thomas Waibel, Die Masken des Widerstandes. Spiritualität und Politik in Mesoamerika, philosophical dissertation, University of Vienna 2007, especially pp 33–49.

[11] Cine Mekapal, 16 minute video, Spanish/Tzeltal, German voice-over, Mexico 2000, direction, Kinoki Lumal; and Talleres, 14 minute video, Spanish/Tzeltal, German voice-over, Mexico 2000, direction, Kinoki Lumal

[12] Kapel, 48 minute video, Spanish/Tzeltal, German voice-over, Mexico 2000. Written and directed by Collective Che Guevara; camera, Joaquín Santiz López

[13] Thomas Waibel, Die Masken des Widerstandes, op cit, p 45

[14] La Marcha Color de la Tierra, 99 minute video chronicle, Spanish/Tzeltal, German subtitles, Mexico 2001, camera, editing and direction, Kinoki Lumal

[15] Tzajal Ch’en – Red Cave, 18 minute video, Spanish/Tzotzil with German subtitles, Mexico 2001. Written and directed by Union de Milperos Tradicionales Hombres y Mujeres de Maiz; editing, Kinoki Lumal

[16] Ahau Tepepul, 6 minute video, Spanish/Tzutuhil, German subtitles, Guatemala 2002

[17] El Gran Abuelo Rilaj Mam, 77 minute video, Spanish/Tzutuhil, German subtitles, Guatemala 2002, written and directed by Asociación Cultural Ahau Tepepul; camera and editing, Kinoki Lumal

[18] Hito Steyerl, ‘Das Babelfights-Syndrom. Kinoki Lumal’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1003/steyerl/de

[19] See also Die gute Regierung der Zapatistas, 31 minute video, Spanish, German and English subtitles, Mexico 2005, direction, Oliver Ressler and Tom Waibel