How does art, literature, film, and TV influence and communicate the power of radical action and social mobilization? During the month of April, the Walker’s Expanding the Frame series presents Imagination Is Power, a four-part program that looks at the revolutionary spirit from the late 1960s until today through short experimental film and video works, newsreels, and propaganda. The program is anchored by footage of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus in 1967. Accurately predicting a turbulent future, Dr. King called for justice, equality, and humanity for all, ending the status quo and illusions of tranquility that govern our everyday existence. The series uses the paradoxes in his speech to create eclectic programs of media and art that reflect the fury and ambition rooted in the search for civil liberties.
To expand the conversation about the series and spark a deeper exploration of the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power, we invited scholars and artists to contribute their thoughts, stories, and research on the legacy of the late 1960s and activism today, covering the expansive topics of media influence, artist films, propaganda footage, and poetry. Look for online essays and interviews from: Alice Lovejoy, Amir George, Ayo Akngbade, Bidayyat Audio Visual Arts, Chicago Film Archives, Nadie Cloete, and Valérie Déus. We begin the premiere installment of the series with a two-part interview with Bentson Archivist/Assistant Curator Ruth Hodgins and artist Valérie Déus. In part one, Hodgins and Déus discuss their recent collaboration on Imagination Is Power and its multidisciplinary approach.
Ruth Hodgins: At the beginning of our collaboration you mentioned seeing footage from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech that took place at the University of Minnesota in 1967. Clips from this speech are included in the first program, I Am A…, and we talked about that footage being an anchor for the programs. Can you tell us what energized you about the speech and why it was important to include the clips?
Valérie Déus: I was excited about it because it was the first time I had ever seen MLK in color. It was so rich and real. I think when you see something in black and white it somehow feels more removed.
The programs need to be kicked off with this speech because he is the figure that people think of for the late ’60s, and we are almost exactly 50 years on from his assassination. I was so moved by the footage. It should be on the streets, on billboards: everyone should see this. It is especially important here because, while Minnesota is seen as being progressive, it also has some of the worst disparities for people of color. The state is liberal, but what does that actually mean? How does that look? And how is that different from other places that are not liberal? How is it really different if the disparities are the same for the people who look like me? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the disparities here and addressed them in the speech.
Hodgins: MLK brings together the importance of local action with global thinking. By including global works next to local material in the programs you can see how local reactions are interconnected to world-wide issues. In the speech MLK talks about the intertwining of injustices everywhere.
Déus: “Justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere the world over.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., University of Minnesota, St Paul, 1967
Hodgins: The title of the series, Imagination Is Power, and each of the four program names came together from an amalgamation of different protest signs from 1968. What does “Imagination is Power” mean to you, and why were the protest signs important?
Déus: It’s about world building, seeing something different than what is here in front of us. Before anything can be built, the first step is to see it in your mind and imagine what it could look like in order to make it happen. To be able to see a different world means you can help create a different world. Sometimes we feel stuck, thinking this is the way it’s always been and always will be. But that doesn’t have to be true.
The protest signs created a framework that helped us divide the programs into different themes and for each to have its own identity. We were looking at protest signs from France, South America, Northern Ireland, and the United States, and combined the different parts to see how they sounded together. Eventually landing on Imagination Is Power: I Am A…; Be Realistic, Ask the Impossible;;We Shall Overcome; and Rather Life. Bringing the different signs together, associating the different movements that happened around the world, and connecting parts of history where people have stood up for their rights, stood up for their autonomy, and demanded to be treated better. We tried to focus on protest signs and images from around the world that referenced our current feeling of turmoil, disruption, and eruption, reflecting the urgency of a moment that’s not going to be forgotten.
Essentially we are addressing self-preservation versus justice and community-preservation versus justice. Thinking about demonstration, humanity, change, and protest. Having the freedom to be accepted as the person you are and being able to preserve your individuality.
Hodgins: Framing the programs with the intention of addressing social-preservation versus justicewas very deliberate and came up in many of the questions we asked ourselves when conceiving the series. As Expanding the Frame is an experimental moving image program, I’ve been concerned with looking at artists from 50 years ago and today that represent moments of turmoil, activism, and justice in their practice. I’ve always been inspired when artists represent broad and urgent subject matters in their own unique voice and form, often opening up new perspectives and ways of seeing. When we decided to place the experimental artists’ films with archival news material, it was initially because we were asking ourselves what would it look and feel like to blend the different perspectives in a short film and video program? Would one inform the other? What questions did you ask yourself when putting the programs together and how did you attempt to address them?
Déus: The questions I asked were less about the idea of protest, but how it felt and visually looked. I didn’t want the programs to look like a series of news clips or read like a history book. I wanted the programs to talk about protest in a visual way but also have elements of creative and inspirational spaces. I think of the creative or experimental works as breaths or breaks in the programs, lifting us out of the expected narrative. Trying to create a series that isn’t just news and fact, but emotional, colorful, and real to the unexpected nature of life. Showing both the facts and the people. Who are these people? What does it feel like? What does it look like? How do you protest and still get up every day and carry on with life, going to work, looking after a family?
Hodgins: Attempting to show people demanding change as an important thread throughout the programs.
Déus: The programs also represent changes in how the press sees and reports. In the 1960s the press were allowed far more access, to be anywhere, and now they are corralled into specific zones, which in turn controls the public’s view into situations.
Hodgins: The late 1960s was a pivotal moment in media, especially when the Portapax Camera was released. It was the first time individual artists and activists had access to affordable video recording devises that could be used outside the studio. People and organizations didn’t quite know what the implications would be with such open access to events, and going “behind the scenes.” Video groups formed, such as TVTV or Videofreex, and created documentaries from their lived experiences. They would be in events such as the Democratic National Convention or Republican National Convention, not necessarily affiliated to any official news organization and therefore asking the question that they wanted to, unregulated. Yet eventually this initial openness and access changed and companies, governments, and individuals quickly closed ranks when they realized the impact and visibility and how it could make them look. Then again, today we’ve come full circle with smartphones where we can record absolutely everything.
Déus: To me it’s interesting to think about access and its impact then and how it impacted the Vietnam War. The more you saw, the worse it was. It was the first war that was properly televised in people’s living rooms.
Hodgins: The programs reference the idea of the world being televised into your living room and everyday people experiencing news material along with whatever soap opera they may be watching. People experienced one program after another screening in their homes. I think about how we curated Imagination Is Power a little like that, considering what it must have been like living in the late ’60s with TV for the first time. Watching your favorite commercial, then seeing footage from the Vietnam War, then perhaps watching All My Children…
Déus: In a way, you were held hostage; there weren’t the options. I remember when I was a kid and John Lennon was shot and every single channel was the same material, only four channels. I can’t go anywhere, I don’t know the Beatles, but OK I’ll watch this. It’s different now where you have the ability to create your own world. Watch what you like and never experience anything that might make you feel uncomfortable and upset. So, for Imagination Is Power we thought about the viewing of media in the ’60s, not only by including work from this era but also by creating four programs that are reminiscent of what it would have been like to experience and watch TV in your living room 50 years ago.
Hodgins: The four programs have a total of 29 short films from around the world. Can you tell share a few of the titles the stand out for you?
Déus: So You Want To Be a Cheerleader, in We Shall Overcome, on April 19. It’s strange, funny, sad, and scary. This weird Stepford Wife–like work. It’s an odd representation of femininity and control—controlling your body, controlling yourself, controlling your mind. It’s creepy.
Black Moderates and Black Militants also screening on April 19. It’s a piece I love because when watching similar conversations or being in similar conversation, they never get to a place of understanding. People get upset, shouting back and forth; people walk out the room and nothing usually happens. But to see the exchange back and forth in Black Moderates and Black Militants, where each person clearly explains, or has the chance to explain, what they don’t understand, we witness the moderate woman’s impression slowly change. For me it looks like a wave of transformation. She becomes a totally different person. It’s like when I’m teaching: when you see that change, the light bulb goes off and the student’s whole face and body changes. I love that moment.
Hodgins: Both works are in the same program. How do you see them connect? Or if they don’t, why program them together?
Déus: I like them in the same program because they are so opposite. What they are talking about in Black Moderates and Black Militants is this idea of a lack of control—the notion that we are going to create something new, we don’t know exactly how it will be, but we can start with an idea, then move on from there. Being able to jump into that void, and just start over is very inspiring. The lack of vision is what keeps the moderate woman behind. She doesn’t get it, asking what are you going to call it? What are you replacing? What do you mean? As though all the answers have already been decided. The militants are saying: No, we are going to create something different, something new; we can imagine something bigger and better. In contrast, So You Want To Be a Cheerleader is about having no imagination at all, this drab desert of ideas. When you think about being a teenager and its difficulties, seeing the rules and restrictions (you have to brush your hair this many times?!). A semblance of control, especially a need to control every detail of the woman’s body, what it’s doing, how it behaves, it’s the sort of thing that makes you go insane. Of course, this generation had “mommy’s little helper,” the Valium pill people would take to calm the nerves. Control will do that to you, where you just want to have a cocktail in the middle of the afternoon because you can’t handle it anymore. You’ve spent your entire life trying to control your humanity, just try and be a person.
Hodgins: So You Want To Be a Cheerleader gives the initial impression of being an affirmative positive work, upbeat: “You’ve got to be a leader!” But actually it is the more oppressive work. In contrast, Black Moderates and Black Militants is on the surface, dark and grainy, with two people slightly angry, arguing. But in actuality it is the affirmative and positive work.
Déus: And that’s what makes So You Want to be a Cheerleader feel like a horror film to me, sinister. It’s a front of being incredibly positive and healthy, yet in truth it’s restrictive and structured.
With Black Moderates and Black Militants, I walked away feeling so light, watching it for the first time changed the way I think about the world. Wonderful! The other piece is everything I always wanted to leave behind. Miserable. You can’t have freedom with all that control.