The Story of We Tell

Carmel Curtis from the XFR Collective was sitting in her home in Bloomington in the winter of 2019 scanning her bookshelves.

It occurred to Curtis that archives are best thought of, not as something inert, but as an active process of retelling, reclaiming, re-digging.

She was marinating on how to resolve an enormous challenge the larger working group had encountered in its work exploring the fifty-year history of participatory community media.

How to name an exhibition with so many topics and such a wide range of work across half a century? Was it possible to devise a title that would both suggest its purpose but also provoke a new way to consider this work and encourage audiences to engage in these types of documentaries?

A brainstorming meeting with Louis Massiah, project director, Patricia Zimmermann, co-programmer, researcher, and writer, and members of the XFR Collective was set up. The directive: everyone would think of as many titles and ideas as possible and then toss them out in a group email for analysis and discussion.

In her work, Curtis, an archivist at the Indiana University University Archive,was dedicated to thinking about archives not as trapped in the linear past, but also as operating in the present.

What, she asked, would happen if archives were reconsidered in the present tense, as a contemporary act? Could archivists dispose of the “re” prefix so typically assigned to radical visions of the archive as retelling and revision?

Curtis surveyed books on her shelves from Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, and Audre Lorde.

An idea sprang to life: archives could be thought of as an act of sharing that is not about “re” but about “we,” a collective in the present and moving forward. She thought: We Tell. She shared this idea with the participatory community media exhibition working group, and all agreed. This was it. The title of the national touring exhibition.

The phrase “we tell” invokes African American literary traditions of storytelling as a form of collective agency and a reclamation of culture. In his poem, “Let America Be America Again” published in 1935, the poet, essayist, and novelist Langston Hughes insists that

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

This poem argues that the pulsating diversity of the American landscape and experience can combat the power that destroys through actions and misrepresentations. It promotes a form of telling as reclamation beyond the individual teller as a counternarrative to exclusion and violence.

In Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2015), one of the books Curtis perused as she thought through the title of the exhibition, Angela Davis amplifies the necessity of moving beyond the self. She argues “it is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”

The term “we tell,” then, asserts the power of community, the urgency of counternarratives, and the utility of reclamation of community and place. The exhibition’s title, We Tell, suggests alternative narratives and explanations embedded in a collective sense of identity.

So how did We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media came into being? What is the story of We Tell’s own behind-the-scenes process?

In 2014, a confluence of causes inspired Louis Massiah, the Executive Director of Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, to conclude that something needed to be done about reclaiming and reinvigorating a wide, diverse ecology of time-based nonfiction storytelling practices.

Participatory community media needed to be part of the story, a nonfiction form more about process than genre.

And this expanded story required something big. A reclamation and a celebration. A renewal and an inspiration. A look back at a vibrant history but also a movement forward to spur community place-based media production where subjects represent themselves.

In an era of iPhones, Instagram, and live streaming, the potent legacies of participatory community media in the United States and their nonprofessional, ground-up, decentralized strategies to deploy accessible technologies to tell stories and offer analyses essential to democratic discourse have largely been effaced.

Across many conversations, Massiah,and Zimmermann observed that the ecosystem of independent film far exceeds festival and theatrical exhibition.

The roots of independent cinema inhabit other domains, in small-scale, short, approachable nontheatrical media made by, in, and with communities or political movements. It is screened in community or political organizing spaces. This work-with-a-purpose reclaims power, shares a vision, and helps communities become stronger.

Scribe pioneered a participatory production model with its Community Visions program in the late 1990s, lending filmmakers to community groups as instructors for periods of eight to twelve months. Scribe later launched a large-scale community media neighborhood mapping project which by 2019 included ninety-five documentaries under the title Precious Places Community History Project. In the wake of and in reaction to the rise of Islamaphobia in the US in the early twenty-first century, Scribe created Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, a participatory series of histories of Muslim communities in the area.

A watershed of ideas and practices converged in this important arena of media-making.

First, participatory community media holds value because those impacted by the topic of the documentary have authorship, not as objects of a camera, but as true subjects of their stories, where they often appear as characters in the resulting works. This vision of bringing people together fosters and moves democracy.

Second, this sector of media practice that sees media as having a social and useful purpose rather than functioning as an entertainment commodity has been pushed underground, an erasure of the idea that media making can have a purpose apart from commerce. This important stream of nonfiction filmmaking needs to be reclaimed and featured.

And third, production processes often determine documentary aesthetics. At one highly-resourced end, commercial films produced within industrial structures often look the way they do because of a hierarchical process of filmmaking based on a division of labor, efficiency, and profit maximization.

But a vast array of production practices especially in nonfiction thrive beyond these vertical methods, often using more horizontal and collaborative processes to make work.

Is it possible to map and then understand the alternative aesthetic approaches that might emerge from participatory modes of production? What would a participatory documentary aesthetics look like in small-scale, place-based works? How do these aesthetic and production approaches work with and collaborate with communities?

The people at Scribe Video Center witnessed firsthand that many different groups and practitioners across the United States work with communities in this small-scale, short-form mode. These makers shared a kinship with each other in terms of practice, process, and specificity of place.

Clearly, it was time to connect these groups in a national touring exhibition to explore similarities and differences in this vast and underrecognized history of made-with-a-purpose nonfiction practices in the United States.

A touring exhibition would bring these various regional works from different periods together. It might open up new spaces to consider the importance of these works and the community media centers that produce them to craft a diverse vision of American life focused on the concerns and visions of ordinary people with all their complexities and in their own words.

By 2015, Massiah and Hye Jung Park, program director at Scribe, began laying the groundwork for a touring exhibition of participatory community media.

The founder of Scribe Video Center, Massiah had produced and directed many long-form documentaries on social and political issues. He had also spent decades working with Philadelphians on many community-based and community-generated participatory media projects to create place-based documentaries about Philadelphia from a grassroot perspective. A media and community activist, Park had also worked at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network and Downtown Community Television.

Massiah invited documentary historian and theorist Patricia Zimmermann to join the project. A professor, programmer, scholar, and writer, her work focused on documentary that engaged social and political issues of community, democracy, media, and technology across many different locations and platforms.

Scribe’s first grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts for a national exhibition program was not funded. A year later, the organization resubmitted a revised proposal for We Tell, expanding the exhibition sites. This proposal secured funding.

In March 2015, Massiah, Park, and Zimmermann had several long rapid-fire brainstorming meetings to discuss examples of participatory community media where the on-camera subjects or those most affected by an issue have authorship, where communities and constituencies generated stories, and where different kinds of stories and forms emerged organically to pursue solutions for community concerns.

These media empowered people through a place-based strategy emphasizing the local rather than the national impact of issues. In their production, distribution, and exhibition, these works catalyzed conversations.

Park dubbed this process the production of multilogues that nurtured affinities.

Massiah pointed out these works took on significant conflictual issues in American culture and politics such as the criminal justice system, environmental issues, education, gender inequality, globalization, health, heterosexism, homo/transphobia, history, homelessness, housing, identities, immigration, jobs, racism, sexism, state violence, urban spaces, war, white supremacy, and work.

Zimmermann suggested that the development of accessible technologies like the Sony Portapak in the late 1960s, the camcorder in the 1980s, and mobile phones in the 2000s democratized the means of production that made this work possible.

The many different collectives and media centers across the United States producing participatory community media documentaries were inventoried, including: Appalshop, Chicago Film Workshop, Deep Dish TV, Downtown Community Television, New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), Paper Tiger Television, South West Alternative Media Project (SWAMP), Squeaky Wheel, and Visual Communication.

Massiah, Park, and Zimmermann concurred that participatory community documentary rejected the notion of the passive consumer audience in favor of intentional community, jettisoning the mass for the micro.

In January 2017, this group convened for another collective brainstorming on the definition, scope, and significance of participatory community media.

DeeDee Halleck, co-founder of both Paper Tiger Television and Deep Dish TV and a long-time advocate for cable access television and independent media, joined in. The goal: to reintroduce participatory community media into the conversation about nonfiction media practices to reclaim and expand its usefulness, energy, and power. These documentaries suggested a practice of utility and urgency.

Halleck insisted that the histories of this kind of documentary work extend back decades, to Aleksandr Medvedkin (USSR), George Stoney (US), Dziga Vertov (USSR), and the Workers Film and Photo Leagues (US). Community participatory documentary works span the globe and media technologies as they miniaturize, amateurize, and become more affordable and accessible.

Halleck underscored the utility of the short durations of participatory community media documentaries which facilitate customized exhibitions for different purposes. She had direct experience with the Gulf Crisis TV projects that responded to needs in the anti-war movement in the early 1990s by aggregating community-produced work from different states and cities across the US.

To decipher the shape, scope, and content of We Tell, convenings for face-to-face dialogues and debates proved critical. In February 2017, Massiah, Park, and Zimmermann met for a long session with Clemencia Rodriguez, a Temple University Professor well-known for her research on community media in her groundbreaking Latin America in Citizens' Media Against Armed Conflict: Disrupting Violence in Colombia (2011).

The group discussed the parameters of participatory community media for the purposes of this project: collectively or collaboratively produced; democratic; deploying any available technology; exhibited outside of galleries, festivals, or television; focused on advocacy to shift power; inclusive authorship; place-based. Citizen’s media, independent journalism, and studio-produced work would not be included.

Rodriguez drew a circle and divided it into pie wedges to illustrate how community, impact, organizations, policy, politics, and technology converge to situate participatory community media.

In these discussions, the assembled group agreed that participatory community media fights against the dematerialization of new technologies by privileging the physical communities and the materialities of place. The group defined communities by place but also shared political visions and class, ethnic, gender, national, racial, and sexual orientation identities. The group hypothesized a community can be defined as who one puts their lot in with, how one lives in it.

By mid-2017, contributors with more archival skills were necessary to mount what had evolved into a five-decade, six-program exhibition. Professional archivists were needed to find the films, secure venues, and work with rights management. The XFR Collective, a group of activist archivists committed to reclaiming marginalized works and activating them, had not only the expertise in archival practices and research, but the experience in working with materials produced in nonprofit sectors often not archived in large institutions. They also had strong contacts with networks of archivists and community producers across the US and Puerto Rico.

Formed in 2013, the XFR Collective is comprised of members with varied backgrounds in archiving and preservation, collection management, humanities-based teaching and research, and video and media art production. The collective developed out of an exhibition called XFR STN at the New Museum in New York City, initiated by Alan W. Moore of Collaborate Projects, Inc. (COLAB) and Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club (MWF).

Once the exhibition closed, XFR STN became the nonprofit XFR Collective. They established a mission to partner with activists, artists, groups, and individuals to lower the barriers to preserving at-risk audiovisual media--especially unseen, unheard, or marginalized works. They provided low-cost digitization services and fostered a community of support for archiving and access through cultural engagement, education, and research.

Six XFR members--Brendan Allen, Carmel Curtis, Caroline Gil, Michael Grant, Marie Lascu, and Treva Walsh-- joined the project. Once XFR was on board, more conference-call brainstorming ensued about the specifics of how to find works, uncover pieces that had not been considered, and think about programming.

Conversation undergirds these media productions, suggesting that the multilogues of participatory community documentary also needed to be part of the process of mounting this national touring exhibition.

Zimmermann researched participatory community media films and videos, histories, makers, and organizations. XFR collective searched for works. And Massiah approached the Ford Foundation to fund a meeting in June 2018, which became the National Convening on Participatory Media.

This meeting surveyed and assessed participatory community media: who was doing work, the forms it assumed, its capacities and methods, issues erupting in a recalibrated political landscape, new political struggles, and forms of resistance.

Community media groups with decades-long productive and impactful histories such as Appalshop, Community Film Workshop in Chicago, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas, NOVAC, Radio Free Georgia, Scribe, Squeaky Wheel, Sun Prairie Media Center, and Visual Communication encountered newer mobilizations such as the BYB 100, Movement for Black Lives, PhillyCam, POPPYN, The Sanctuary in Troy, New York, and Youth Media Project in Jackson, Mississippi. In this meeting, they shared their struggles and successes with participatory community media. It also led to new collaborations that have spread across different states and regions.

Propelled by conference calls, convenings, and conversations, the now-expanded research and curatorial group discerned six salient themes in which to organize works from different community media organizations and makers: Body Publics; Collaborative Knowledges; Environments of Race and Place; States of Violence; Turf; and Wages of Work. To show continuities and change, a chronological structure of the works in each program was decided upon in order to show development and progression. It could also reveal the deployment of different accessible and affordable media technologies to address issues.

At the Visible Evidence Conference on Documentary, an annual convening of cinema and media studies scholars that took place in August 2018 at Indiana University, Curtis, Massiah, and Zimmermann gave a presentation on the significance of and framework for the We Tell exhibition in an interactive workshop. They showed clips from videos in the exhibition, the first public roll-out of the project.

The five years of work it took to mount We Tell seemed to evoke the processes of community media production. Extending beyond one person, this work necessitated networked collaborations and participation across generations, gender, race, regions, and skill sets.

The administrative, archival, curatorial, programming, and research work to build the We Tell national touring exhibition galvanized many conversations with other community media practitioners, makers, programmers, and scholars beyond the group. Jane Banks, copyeditor and researcher, and Jason Livingston, research assistant, came on board in support roles in 2019 to further hone the project.

The staff at Scribe Video Center contributed important behind the scenes logistical and technical support. Dan Papa, technical director and archivist at Scribe, organized and prepared the media for presentation formats. Marcellus Armstrong, program manager, coordinated many of the national exhibition tasks. Kristal Sotomayor, the communications and outreach coordinator, launched the engagement campaign. Development director Alexia Chororos’ very successful fundraising work raised the funds to move forward with the project.

Others beyond Scribe contributed. Alex Chen designed the exhibition logo, Tracey Diehl designed the exhibition catalog, and Sam Cohen and Michael Shannon designed the website. Gabrielle Patterson animated the We Tell opening, with an original, evocative score composed by Jerome Jennings.

The people who worked on We Tell are a diverse group of archivists, practitioners, and scholars engaged in multilogues about participatory community media. The group shares a commitment to reclaim and regenerate the fifty-plus year histories of participatory community media in the United States.

This work is not concluded, but only beginning.

These significant works of participatory community generate new ways of thinking about people, place, and power, and how all three can be changed into reservoirs of hope, optimism, and social justice.