In June of 2013 the Greek public television and radio stations of the Hellenic Broadcast Corporation (ERT) were shut down by Greece’s then Right-wing New Democracy government. Faced with the pressuring demands of creditors and the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF), combined with the government’s own neoliberal doxa, the shut down was excused with the unsurpassable necessity of spending cuts and the struggle to end state corruption which plagued the broadcaster for decades. ERT’s shutdown left up to 2,700 workers jobless.
The official decision was made public at noon, announcing the shut down for midnight of the same day. A mass of protesters, including worker’s unions, ERT and other media workers as well as political supporters, grouped in front of ERT’s headquarters. With no reason to keep to its scheduled daily program, the television station prepared for the end by debating the decision, occasionally cutting to outside shots of the demonstration.
ERT broadcast its own ending live to a worldwide audience. The shut down came at 11pm, an hour earlier than expected. The debate was halted mid-sentence, cutting momentarily to a pitch black screen before a no signal feed emerged. The last image broadcasted live by ERT was an image of protesters. It was an image of television’s public.
In response, ERT workers camped inside the television studios, and carried on broadcasting news and debates online and via satellite relay channels. EBU, which represents European public service broadcasters, joined in and set up a satellite news gathering operation in the car park outside ERT’s headquarters. Even though ERT’s email servers were shut down, workers turned to their personal accounts in order to continue the broadcast.
ERT may have been the last television channel to ever broadcast, the first and last television signal to be interrupted. While ERT was reestablished after Syriza came to power in January of 2015, it is unclear if the medium of television survived the blow.
2. After Television
Since ERT’s closure, television broadcasters have begun to publish clipped pieces of broadcast for online distribution. But this was only a first step in the race; now, major newspapers and channels are fast producing video content specifically for the web, the majority of which made for social media. The biggest news producers can publish up to a hundred videos a week. These are mostly fast, short-form, with a single issue. Their average auto-play time ranges from one to thirty seconds:11Nic Newman, “Will Online Video be the Salvation of Journalism?” The Media Briefing, 15 January 2016: https://www.themediabriefing.com/article/will-online-video-be-the-salvation-of-journalism
Such temporality has an impact on the video form, with news providers becoming increasingly interested in dissecting memes or understanding the logic of viral content. For example, title and text are disassociated and often it is the former that will cause the viewer to pause on an endless scroll and refresh, to click on contents and open a given video; otherwise they will be embedded directly on autoplay, with the scroll activating the video. These videos are structured by what their titles promise and the context that is at stake, between the reported case and the viewer’s expectations, the viewers’ attention span. What originates clicks and shares, that is, profits, is the medium of montage set within an economy where “clickbait” is the unit of measurement.22“Shell Oil Spill Dumps Thousands of Barrels of Crude Into Gulf of Mexico,” Huffpost Green, 12 May 2016: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/shell-oil-spill-gulf-mexico_us_57353058e4b060aa7819ee00
It is no longer the case of a circular repetition of televised event clips repeating ad absurdum with every news flash. Images of disaster, such as Deepwater Horizon’s BP oil spill in 2010 for example, no longer exist only in an endless televised loop. Rather, its image requires a succession of clicks and shares to populate feeds. But if we play videos incessantly it is because images are re-actualized frequently, such as in this month’s news of a new oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this time the responsibility of Royal Dutch Shell. Often, what is reoccurring in a loop is the event itself, as is the case with the 88,200 gallons of bubbly viscosity reportedly released from the pipeline just last Thursday May 12.
3. New Genres
While newspapers and channels increasingly use new tactics to expand their presence online, activists are crafting viral videos as well in order to reach a wider audience, with citizen journalists uploading alternative narratives as a form of protest against how mainstream media portrays given events. Interestingly, these videos are at a tension between the diversity which they represent and the constrain of the repetitive image online, between reporting from other angles on the same or other stories and the necessity of circulation and the click.
But then there are also the amateur videos, videos which are commented, tagged, and linked to further videos, not only the playlist but the link within the video, the link within the link. There are tutorials, comments, and the walkthroughs, each with their own aesthetics and language. While in walkthroughs the gamer becomes simultaneously the director, who guides the spectator through the videogame map, more often than not voicing the gaming experience, reaction videos mirror back to directors the feedback loop of spectatorship, and more often than not criticism.
Both of the above are present in how newspapers such as The Guardian and the New York Times are trying to bring the cinematic home via VR technology. In this “immersive journalism”, the reader/viewer-turned-user is placed within a given action through freely distributed cardboard headsets to subscribers. If you are not a subscriber or have no headset, you can nonetheless control space with the touch of a trackpad or a mouse, clicking and dragging to look around. You are placed in the center of action. The space around you swerves, distorting the objects further away from the center of the image, directly in front of you. Because of this effect it is as if the camera is the user himself, and probably a wide angle at that. Interestingly, there seems to be a tendency to use VR to deploy users in geographies of difficult access or reporting: NYT’s Syrian children refugees tent; ABC News’ monuments in danger tour in Damascus; The Guardian’s US solitary confinement cell experience. In the latter, the journalist’s voice guides your few possible steps inside the cell, the camera levitates and shakes in an attempt to translate common forms of hallucinations suffered by prisoners. In The Guardian’s VR documentary as in NYT’s Syrian children experience, the goal appears to be a meditation that at best tries to cash in on the sensory deprivation the VR set is trying to sell you as the ultimate experience, the inhumanity of such torture architecture, or of such abandonment, and rather than report it aims at empathy. The journalist no longer judges camera positions and framings, he simply chooses an axis. It is therefore unsurprising that VR is being introduced into therapy and trauma recovery.
More than just a medium shift to online distribution for the maintenance revenue, what is at stake here is the emergence of new genres, other video grammars and vocabularies, which means new experiences, perceptions, and sensibilities (on the side of spectators as much as producers). We are talking about attention spans, focus points, shot durations, cheap After Effects insertions, first-person/third-person perspectives, voice-over and text on image, infographic animations. If mediums and spectators constitute one another reciprocally, then these new genres and their online distribution are bound together.
Activist campaigning, academic lectures, fiction-writing speculation, artistic expression, citizen journalism, documentary reporting, tutorials and amateur analysis, reinterpretation and fan reenactment are all currencies within sharing platforms, translated into specific video grammars of voice, sound, still and moving imagery, post-productions techniques, animation, and montage. All these modes of address, contain their own concerns and desires, their consciousness and unconscious. As “extensions of men,” broadcast images sit next to our own therapy sessions, in need of quarantine and treatment: we analyze them individually, when what they need is group therapy.
4. The Extra-Perspectival Report: No Comments – Partiality and Systemic Imbalance
But let us take a step back. No Comments, Euronews’s uncaptioned, uncommented news segment, is a conflicted image of the European Union’s illusion of impartiality and continental brotherhood. Euronews first went on air on January 1st 1993, one year after the Maastricht Treaty. No Comments immediately became its signature feature. No Comments embodied an expectation of transparency, no voice over = no translation = no partiality. It elegantly avoided the necessity of voice-over narration in the multiple languages of the Union by eliminating it all together. Embracing the absence of any angle or political perspective, it showed B reel footage as a unaltered, unmediated testimony.
But what can such impartial image do before the tension at the heart (and periphery) of the European Union, when itself is invariably part of the conflict? Euronews had a significant role in the closure of ERT. Since its beginning that Euronews has been partially co-financed by contributions from each country’s audiovisual budget; faced with the Troika’s austerity measures, Greece defaulted on its contributions, which allegedly triggered ERT’s shut down in exchange. A day later, No Comments broadcast the protesters in front of ERT as a crane swooshed to zoom in on the crowd. While it played mute images of parked public buses and trains as a means to represent Greece’s general strike, inside ERT’s studios its workers labored afterhours of their own free will, reporting illegally back to the public.
No Comments and the Maastricht Treaty are two sides of the same coin: the post-1989 European integration process and its flaws. For what could a No Comments model of reporting ever do to compensate the incongruences and interests behind the plans for a European Monetary Union signed into law in Maastricht?33Mary Elise Sarotte, “Eurozone Crisis as Historical Legacy,” Council on Foreign Relations Press, September 2010: http://www.cfr.org/world/eurozone-crisis-historical-legacy/p22932 Kevin Featherstone, “The Maastricht Roots of the Euro Crisis,” Social Europe, 14 March 2012: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2012/03/the-maastricht-roots-of-the-euro-crisis/ How could it ever soothe, much less represent, the EU’s belief in the self-fulfilling illusion of neoliberal markets, the difficulties of German reunification, or the disparities between countries who were rushed into the Euro?
Systemic imbalance in itself is hard to represent. Perhaps it is easier to compute it. But automated, algorithmic news are not the point. Faced with the complexity of current systemic crises, cameras remain narrowly perspective-oriented. There is an ontological incapacity to represent systems, much less power flows within systems, through the linearity of film technology. In this respect, the availability of prosumer DSLR images of HD quality fail us as much as the overabundance of televised images before them. Or No Comments for that matter.
Inhabitants is working in close collaboration with Contour Biennale 8 for the production of an online video series which will take from the history of the Great Council of the Netherlands in the city of Mechelen in order to explore the status of justice, rights, and their relation to image making and circulation. This series will be made available on the Contour Biennale 8 website, Inhabitants’s online channel, as well as major video streaming sites.