Signal Fires at the Crossroads

By Jem Cohen

little-flags.jpgLittle Flags

Crafting a culture of resistance

No Surprise
Hey what’s your name?
Do you feel the same way too?
Siphon fuel don’t make a sound
And most of all don’t let me down
It comes as no surprise
We’re destabilized
Hey, lock eyes shared plan
No C.I.A. could understand
Defile, define, critique and salve
No C.I.A., no N.S.A., no satellite
Could map our veins

New York, 1991: on the day the Gulf War is expected to start, I hear about a protest, a candlelight vigil to take place in front of the United Nations if they start to bomb. I take the train from Brooklyn and get there late. Turning the corner onto the U.N. plaza, I see that out of eight million New Yorkers, about 200 protesters are there, surrounded by probably three times as many cops. 200 people, standing silently. Barricades in the street. Trucks piled high with more barricades, and so many blue uniforms.

Of course, the bombing does start and, after standing for a while, the protesters eventually straggle into the night with their candles and signs. One of them, I remember, got hit by a car on the way out; people seemed lost, scattered, and scared. We got home to the green night-vision footage of bombs hitting Iraq.

Sometimes I can go to protests of 200,000 or 500,000 or more. For the first hour or so it feels amazing. But I have to admit that the feeling seldom lasts the whole day. Often, it starts to sink in that I don’t necessarily like marching in unison, chanting slogans. It makes me a little uncomfortable. Slogans often turn to sloganeering, propaganda vs. propaganda… Then I remember that night at the U.N., or I visit a college campus with 50,000 students and no signs of activism whatsoever…

So, I go to the protests, and I thank the marchers, and even the slogan chanters. I especially thank those sorry, brave 200 at the U.N., because there could have been just 100, or 40 or 10. There are a lot of ‘thank yous’ to give.

I thank the people at the town meeting opposing the toxic waste dump or the giant shopping mall; I thank the civil liberties lawyers fighting to curb the excesses of the so-called U.S. Patriot Act; I thank the good teachers, fair journalists, public advocates…  

And I also thank the filmmakers whose work is a mirror and not just an escape, who unearth secret histories and invent strange languages. I thank the musicians whose work is so beautiful, heavy, insane or just alive that it contradicts the daily gravity that holds us to the floor. I thank the bands who don’t sell their songs to the Coke commercial. I thank all those who somehow serve notice against a ‘monoculture’ of blockbuster films and Clear Channeled ‘entertainment streams’ and celebrity / fashion synergized branded overload.

I could continue a long list of thanks. And I thank Vooruit for letting me curate a little festival called FUSEBOX.

FUSEBOX is a celebration at the crossroads of music, film and activism; it represents my personal, loose, four-day sampling of a few things that I consider to be elements in a culture of resistance. It isn’t about one right road or similar approaches to protest or even about defining ‘political art’. What is political art? The following quote, from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, published in 1979, offers one angle I found interesting.

“Art does not organize (political) parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power. Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit… So long as the artist speaks the truth, s/he will, whenever the government is lying or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether s/he intends to or not… In times like these the spirit of the polis must be removed from the hands of the politicians and survive in the resistant imagination. Then the artist finds s/he is describing a world that does not appear in the newspapers and someone has tapped his phone who never thought to call in times of peace.”

So, FUSEBOX is a small celebration of this ‘resistant imagination’. Why the name? When it seems that most revolutions are, in so many ways, failed revolutions, it strikes me that we don’t need a fuse because fuses burn out. Or they are attached to bombs, and I have no faith in bombs. We need fuseboxes, where the electricity / spark / fire is taken care of, stacked up, crudely identified with magic marker, replenished when necessary. We find these where we can, sometimes more directly in the realm of politics but for me, often in a concert, a book, a pile of records, a film, words from friends.

I think of Peter Watkins’ films, which I saw by chance as a child, that tore up set notions of what a documentary was. I think of recent work by the Dardennes, reinvigorating a fiercely unsentimental cinema of ethics.

I remember anti-apartheid ‘punk percussion protests’ in Washington, D.C.; Godspeed You Black Emperor’s wordless, radical shows; a John Berger paperback; a Mekons’ lyric; Patti Smith, invited to join in with a drunken band on a dance tune and looking over to see that she has gone her own way, is suddenly screaming, over and over: ‘No War, No War, No War.’

Many that I know are sad and tired, confused about the forms that activism should take, perplexed about what it is, how it can be effective. In the microcosms of homes and workplaces, band practice rooms, kitchens and meetings, we dream and stop dreaming and dream again of better ways to go if only we could talk to each other, if only we could live our principles, if only the meetings weren’t so dull, if only we had time…

We are leery of the leafletters who see Revolution around the corner much like the fundamentalists see the Second Coming of Christ. And at the same time, we cannot fucking believe that we wake to Bush, Blair, Berlusconi, and no sign of genuine, massive change.  

(And where does Belgium sit in all of this? To a frightening degree, all of Europe reaps what the American and British administrations sow. A twisted equation. But it doesn’t make any country innocent. Would that the U.S. had learned from French Algeria and the Belgian Congo some lessons about Empire…)

Yes, it’s an embarrassing, even horrific time to be an American, but that also depends which America one is talking about. There is another U.S.A., with which we stamp a handmade passport. Its leaders range from Tom Paine, Walt Whitman and Thoreau to Martin Luther King and Rachel Carson, to Coltrane, Joplin, Hendrix, and D. Boon. If I am, in some small way, to serve as ambassador, this is the country I hope to be representing…  

It’s true that maybe the most deeply failed revolution is the one that isn’t even imagined, that’s beaten down daily, that’s so inconceivable that everyone gives up conceiving it.

And maybe there is successful revolution in the insistent, unlikely, tiny enactments of freedom, courage, and imaginative power… In other words, not the big conflagrations, but the signal fires. FUSEBOX hopes to be one of those.

Jem Cohen is a leading international experimental film-maker, renowned for his film essays and engaged work with musicians. His feature Chain, covered in previous issues of Vertigo, recently toured the UK.

Read Rebecca Solnit’s new book: Hope in the Dark: the Never Surrender Guide to Changing the World (Canongate).