Black Bricolage

somatic holiday and black history month

February  2011


     Here are 100 video clips: a one-half hour ethnography of TV blackness in the United States.  Individually, none of these clips is particularly special, peculiar, spectacular, even notable.  These are simply images that entered my home via roof-top satellite dish -- images collectively made, no doubt, by black and white-skinned people alike.  I watched these clips, recorded them, and then strung them together for this project, because I watch TV and when something of interest catches my eye/ear, I collect it and archive it.  Black-skinned people on TV usually catch my eye, some however more than others.  For instance, I watch black-skinned people around the clock in TV newscasts, although I never watch network primetime programming.  I regularly watch black-skinned people in sports, but it seems I’ve barely watched Oprah Winfery a handful of times.  Like everyone else, I like to think I pick and choose my storytellers.  

     Most of the clips within this video were gathered over the last twelve months, since Black History Month 2010.  I wanted to make a project last year about black-skinned people on U.S. television because ‘representation of race’ concerns a large portion of media studies.  But there was a problem, I didn’t have enough material to montage (even less for yellow, brown or red-skinned people).  Plus, I had already made a few videos, tangentially, about black-skinned people and had employed much of my existing archive:

 Black Arts -  2008  (3:00)
 Leave Britney Alone -   2008  (6:15)
 Digital Natives -   2008  (6:45)
 When Pictures Say Ain’t -  2010  (14:00)

     So, I put this project on a back-burner... but Februarys come fast, and right now, as always, there are increased images of blackness on TV.  This year’s Black History Month, however, comes on the heels of another very large and tiring Cultural Farming project, Bully Rhetoric.  Its media exhausted me and I’m still mentally processing much of what was learned.  But TV doesn’t wait.  And so I had to decide: What would Black Bricolage investigate?  What could I possibly say in montage that might shed another light.  The subtitle offers a clue: Somatic Holiday.  Maybe it is time to take holiday from somatic race-images and to consider why so many decades of critical interpretation has done so little to change race representation on TV.  Maybe by upending our eagerness to interpret, upending flesh as word, upending the imperative to activate viewers into disciples of Critical Theory -- and to begin to simply know that words are words and spectacles merely spectacles -- we can arrive at a better understanding of how media words and images, stories and performances change something of the world we live in.  Inversion, upheaval, reversal, turning upside-down -- bouleversement -- is a most excellent media exercise.

     Our obsessive concern with TV’s baleful displays of commodities and images is well known.  It is a common lament that too many manufactured images and thoughts are invading our brains; that we have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; that too much pleasure is afforded too many ‘ignorant’; that too much knowledge is thrust into too many feeble minds.  What results, proclaims this line of thinking, is the unleashing of unknown appetites, mendacious images, un-realities.  Of course, this grips many educated elites in terror.  Likewise, socio-racial critique often assumes others are incapable of knowing how to see, do not understand the meaning of what they see, do not know how to transform acquired knowledge into activist energy.  But there is a flaw in this reasoning, because:  We HAVE BEEN educated in the art of recognizing the reality behind appearances and the messages concealed in images.  Maybe too perfectly educated?  And now we smile knowingly at all the ignorant who do see, but can never see all that we can see.  

     The ‘critical machine’ can work this way until the end of time I suppose, revolving around itself, always capitalizing on the ‘impotence of another’.  Indeed, I often find this with my own work.  Visitors to Cultural Farming too readily see montage with the winking expectancy of cynical humor, parodic condemnation, American imperialism.  And this, then, is what they find... end of project.  My work is too-often knowingly read on-surface as most all video is superficially read today: “Neat... Cultural Farming is cool mash-up.”  But is it?  Not for me.  My ethnography is appropriation and remix for the purpose of dissensus.  I assume viewers are capable, that through the appropriation of common TV content there is no hidden secret of the machine that keeps the viewer paralyzed... sedated.  I assume no monstrous beast absorbing all desire and energy, no lost community to be restored.  No.  

     Rather my montage builds towards dissensus, towards an understanding that all media are made by individuals, and that every media construction can be cracked open from the inside and reconfigured into a different regime of perception and significance.  To upend and reconfigure media landscapes is to alter the field of the possible and to playfully re-distribute through the obviousness of what can be perceived, thought and done.  It is a distribution of dissensus to those already capable of seeing in hopes of altering the coordinates of a shared media world.  I believe there is more to be found and gained in the investigation of this power than in the endless task of unmasking fetishes or in endless demonstrations of the omnipotence of the beast.  I do not mock TV.  Rather if every TV image is rendered passive in an inversion of everyday life, why not, then, turn it upside down -- upend -- in order to refunction the same active power it has appropriated?

     And so, Black Bricolage started here... “Let’s take a holiday, a spring break, another kind of three-day MLK breather”.  Let’s take a somatic image holiday.  And the ‘connective tissue’ here, the binder in this project, all began with Dr. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua.  He introduced me to the notion of “somatic image”:

     Now, I like the term somatic very much.  But at first, to me, it alluded to the drug -- soma -- in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.   And so when Dr. Cha-Jua mentioned the word, I sat up.  Somatic.... Soma Images?  Of course, soma invokes multiple meanings.  This internal, intellectual montage of the corporeal body, a hallucinogen, and the image of “the flesh colored bandage” conflated to guide my Black Bricolage video ethnography, above.  And then, that video got me to thinking: Images of black-skinned people on TV...?  Sure, I dislike most, but they are there, I do see them, I’ve collected hundreds.  Certainly not in numbers equal to white-skinned people, but maybe the problem is not in numbers at all.  

     Would anything be improved by flooding more images of black-skinned people onto the airways?  Of course not, our system of information does not operate through lacks or excesses of images, rather it is through its hyper-selection and hyper-reasoning.  We don’t have wrong images (crayons) in our boxes... rather each choice is identically incorrect.  The victims we assume amongst TV are not victimized by lack of numbers, but by an entire system of representational invisibility that levels everything in its path, never allowing even one image to stand on its own.  When all of us, regardless of ethnicity or demographic, are constructed equally through the apparatus of TV, made too easily by unreflexive makers, what of true importance is rendered invisible?

     A classic critical media studies complaint often traces this line from spectacle oppression to reality awareness to political activism.  But this kind of connection is based in educated presumption.  We presume a connection between education and activism.  But if so, then why do we see this repetitious lack in media improvement?  First time visitors to Cultural Farming, too, often presume this connection is drawn (“It looks like just more silly YouTube mash-up.”).  But for Cultural Farming the focus is less on content critique and more on critical praxis.  Indeed, today we find more media education and more media production courses than ever before, yet curiously little in TV has improved; a result perhaps when seductive production skills are favored over critical thinking.  And so, is it perhaps this educated presumption that actually fuels revolving critical disappointment?  Regardless, as Dr. King famously asked, “Where do we go from here?”

     Cultural Farming projects do not attempt to do the critical reflexive work one must always do for oneself.  Yes, my ethnographic montage is drawn uncomfortably similarly to TV, but precisely without seduction or punch line.  Each is mixed with numerous, conflicting illuminations, not for purposes of building still more interpretive weapons for still more educated battles, but to resist our anticipation with TV content all too familiar.  I intend each Cultural Farming project to re-disorient, through dissensus, where the eye does not know in advance what it sees and thought cannot easily anticipate what to make of it.  I want my bricolage to change both our gaze and the landscape of the possible, to interrupt the narratives and expressions to which we have grown too accustomed, to see anew with new eyes.... to take holiday from somatic critique, to innervate critical theory through surreal ethnography.

     And of course, a bricoleur has a variety of methods at her disposal for building new forms of somatic dissensus.  Thus, I end this project by quoting from yet another scholar from University of Illinois, Dr. Norman Denzin (2005:4-6):

The qualitative researcher may be described using multiple and gendered images: scientist, naturalist, field-worker, journalist, social critic, artist, performer, jazz musician, filmmaker, quilt maker, essayist.  The many methodological practices of qualitative research may be viewed as soft science, journalism, ethnography, bricolage, quilt making, or montage. The researcher in turn, may be seen as a bricoleur, as a maker of quilts, or, as in filmmaking, a person who assembles images into montages.  …The bricoleur produces a …pieced-together set of representations that is fitted to the specifics of a complex situation…(it) is pragmatic, strategic and self-reflexive. 
Montage and pentimento, like jazz, which is improvisation, create the sense that images, sounds, and understandings are blending together, overlapping, forming a composite, a new creation.  Here, montage uses brief images to create a clearly defined sense of urgency and complexity.  It invites viewers to construct interpretations that build on one another as a scene unfolds:
     - The methodological bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks, ranging from interviewing to intensive self-reflection and introspection.
      - The theoretical bricoleur reads widely and is knowledgeable about the many interpretive paradigms that can be brought to any particular problem.
      - The researcher as bricoleur-theorist works between and within competing and overlapping perspectives and paradigms.
      - The interpretive bricoleur understands that research is an interactive process shaped by his or her own personal history, biography, gender, social class, race, and ethnicity, and by those of the people in the setting.
      - The critical bricoleur stresses the dialectical and hermeneutic nature of interdisciplinary inquiry, knowing that the boundaries that previously separated traditional disciplines no longer hold.
      - The political bricoleur knows that science is power, for all research findings have political implications. There is no value-free science.
      - The gendered, narrative bricoleur also knows that researchers all tell stories about the worlds they have studied.  Thus the narratives, or stories, scientists tell are accounts couched and framed within specific storytelling traditions, often defined as paradigms.
      - The product of the interpretive bricoleur's labor is a complex, quiltlike bricolage, a reflexive collage or montage - a set of fluid, interconnected images and representations.  This interpretive structure is like a quilt, a performance text, a sequence of representations connecting the parts to the whole.

Denzin's typology exactly sketches Cultural Farming’s methodology: Bricoleur, the equivalent to the English "do-it-yourself;' or etymologically (French) to fiddle, tinker and, by extension to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose).  Without question, I've been performing similar bricolage throughout my professional life.  Trompe l'oeil, assemblage and juxtaposition as essential means of textual visualization are second nature to my theatrical and television production careers -- and they have been entirely so since 2004 with my initial video experiments in Cultural Farming -- as it is here in this experimental, critical, surreal, ethnographic video montage, above.  For today, it is within the production of production where we can unearth essential and effective new forms of critical media education.

NOTE:  Many words here were appropriated from:
Rancière, Jacques. (2009). The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso.