Survivalism and the Global Mind: Recent Films of Dominic Gagnon
Stills are from PIECES AND LOVE ALL TO HELL
A few years ago I interviewed Dominic Gagnon via email for Craig Baldwin's Otherzine, Issue 22. Gagnon is a French-Canadian videographer, theater director and performer, whose film, RIP IN PIECES AMERICA, I'd seen at Other Cinema. After the film, which I enjoyed as political satire/commentary on reactionary America, I wanted to know more about the filmmaker's process of culling videos flagged-for-removal from You Tube, editing them to make an exposé about culture and identity and what he saw as "content" in the various monologues. I was also strangely attracted, as an artist involved in Baldwin's and San Francisco's found footage and archival scene, to Gagnon's insight into YouTube as a source for original "found footage".
Finally, because his films provide a glimpse into the alienated positions of survivalist Americans--those cabin-fever types, holed up with rifles, pontificating all manner of dreadful homespun theories and hog wash about why, basically, "they" should be in power and taking over before “the government” gets to them, I was triply captivated. A newish brand of Tea Party-type fundamentalism, “Open Carry” gun toting tabula rasa vigilantism and fear mongering displays of paranoia was already brewing and RIP IN PIECES AMERICA provided a close-up vantage point with which to view these renewed tendencies towards total war and right-wing skinhead type fascism.
Mr. Gagnon's films have screened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Transmediale in Berlin. For him, cinema is "a technique for measuring the immeasurable...a discipline of chaos".
It frequently takes someone from elsewhere to get at the cultural nerve-center of the times. These interesting films bring out the shrill voices of apocalyptic thinking and civil detriment. While they may have emerged from the chaos of the Internet, Gagnon presents viewers with a frightening order, profoundly and dangerously schizoidand fanatical. These people and their little web cam moments are scary. They are isolated. Their language is often alienated and bored. The extreme, flamboyant, and overly idealized pseudo-critical content makes most of us disgusted. If we stumble upon them on You Tube, we click the flag and move on, blinkered to broader connotations such offensive content may contain. But, by recontextualizing the moving pictures,Gagnon, as storyteller gives us a brilliant clarity apart from our own comfortable media space and personal presumption of security from this type of individual. In fact, their censorship status on You Tube is used by the filmmaker to critique,I think, a far broader and more troubling silence.
The Webcam Scenario
Web cam mode of address is a peculiar type of “broadcast” not unlike some uses for Facebook or blogs. Gagnon's flagged subjects are all doing monologues in front of the web cam, partially disguised. They comfortably confess their opinions and positions on everything they can think of, frequently with rifles visible in the background. They secure for themselves five minutes of absolute voice and are remarkably oblivious to anyone else although presumably they have an "imagined audience." Using a newscaster-type delivery at times whilst generating theory and solutions for anti-governmental existence, in particular, they speak from chairs in front of their computers.
Because people anywhere can get on the net and make their own web cam video...have a “channel” as it were...they become their own hype. Both RIP IN PIECES AMERICA (2009) and PIECES AND LOVE ALL TO HELL (2011) are made of these digital clips; frontal shots of "characters" talking into the cam.
The videos, “victims of Internet censorship,” Gagnon reports, are repurposed by him for their "hidden" content as a mind mirror, and in this single gesture, we, the audience, see how news making techniques and authority becomes twisted when combined with ignorance, dissatisfaction, liminality, and boredom. We see a certain mirror of production. We see a deep authoritarianism. In front of a web cam, the subjects' odd and "anonymous" approaches to filming themselves, their angry, vulgar constructions, declarations of fear and paranoia, and randy ideas of what to do and how to prepare for the future, expose the monocultural underbelly (replete with rifles in hand or leaning on walls behind them)expecting everyone to submit to a totalitarian mode of agreement.
Another interview with the filmmaker focuses upon how Europeans and Americans might think differently about the ideas in the work. Because of the title and the way in which Gagnon's film, RIP IN PIECES AMERICA depicts a brutal, anger-fueled end to civil society from the mouths of a largely, minorly educated, White population, one might first think it is all about America. Indeed, his films are particularly incisive in these times of Boehner and Tea Party pundits and the more recent Clive Bundy-types. But, right-wing protests in France and the rise of the right in Holland and across Europe, are part of a political climate, from right-wing disruptions of the US Congressional process, to Bertoluschi's Italy, pervasive neo-liberal austerity regimes in numerous countries, and citizens taking law into their own hands. It is a climate deeply marred by right wing beliefs, perhaps spread all the more readily, Gagnon's filmmaking inadvertantly reminds us, due to electronic networks. The collective nihilism of the characters in RIP IN PIECES AMERICA is, after all, more than apparent. When it screened three years ago, it came as a shock to people. Now in 2012, much later, the artist states, it is received "quite differently". In a short space of time, audiences, especially young people, even European young people, “know about all the subjects mentioned in the film.” When he screened for Amsterdam students in January 2012, they were not laughing. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), two restrictive Internet bills were about to pass in the US Congress and the students knew all about them. Characters in Gagnon's films, “are worrying about free-speech and web sharing community disappearance”, about government take over and mind control. This made absolute sense to the Europeans who were also “aware” of police brutality, abusive controls and arrests and “all the new gadgets of policing" on a global scale. The filmmaker hastens to point out that the geography of characters is spread across the western world. They are not only American. The filmmaker's central question is more about the rise of monoculture, its right-wing base, that in relation to power of the US empire, and its laws and style, than it is about the theatrical costumes and aping of persona.
Repurposing and Media Critique
Gagnon takes something hidden and puts it back; he listens to the subjects for what they are saying; for what we don't know, for what is not being said or what is dismissed in the content when we flag it as poor taste. In fact, what these subjects do in recording themselves is record their bizarre fantasy leaving us with a record from which to critique a whole range of absurd, absolutist ideas about "the world." When the future comes they assure us, speaking of their own survival, "they" will be prepared. Are they also stockpiling assault weapons for that day?
...People tell me that Americans are "crazy" after watching my videos, and I always reply "yes" and that the world must be highly "Americanized" by now because people from so many different backgrounds are getting into "survivalist culture", prepping, as it were, for "the end", or are revolting against the notion of a new tyrannical world order as if it were all caused by the same stimulus: Hollywood movies, news, conspiracy web sites and TV. How can you have so many sharing exactly the same "gloom and doom" vision of the future all over the world? Why do they all use a similar vocabulary, the same expressions, or the same references? I think the answer is very simple. It is because they are manipulated. So, "ok", they are manipulated, so we should not worry about conspiracies, right? No, not right.
If there are stupid, popular conspiracy theories, Gagnon believes, then they are also endorsed by mainstream media and forced upon subjects as a result of commercial broadcast media. Therefore, there must be a real conspiracy. “In the end people are provided with misleading half-truths.” In his You-tube world, he sees people who are incapable of doing anything but “sitting alone in front of their computer, consulting dubious websites for new developments on the specific conspiracy theories” which are produced by mainstream media, confirming, as it were, certain types of truth with equally dubious web information. This type of identity shows us something: “no where else is such fear and information to be found” than in this inappropriate and censored You Tube content. That is to say, the Web is the place of information, the place of non- and dis-information, and hidden identities: white supremacist terrorists, too. “They are neutralized, sitting on their chairs yelling at people to move their asses, showing off their guns and mapping, via the Internet, all the potential resistance to be found against the power structures.” He continues, “these people seem aware of this frightened form of existence, and, yet, keep on taking part in it. It could almost be called a game-- a role-playing game where they can impersonate someone else; someone they see themselves as.”
Dominic Gagnon's curiously humorous and pointed films are science fictions. They "come true" because they utilize people from within the generalized strains of information circulating in the ether. What they say seems to be directly related to other forms of thought about the Internet, including legislation and threats to free speech, mind-control, or environmental destruction. After the NDAA passed, RIP IN PIECES AMERICA was no longer a fiction. Predictions of an America under martial law from ranting amateur web cam artists became nearly true on some levels. In fact, “the last character of the film talks specifically about SOPA-like regulations.” That content was from 2008. And then we have PIECES AND LOVE ALL TO HELL. What is noticeable about the filmmaker's chosen women v. the men characters is that the women feel a significant responsibility to nurture or solve "the problems" of the world by taking action. The men characters, rather, pontificate and yell about their own ideas and fears and power while the women seem to have an audience to address adopting more varied modes of delivery, using costumes and visuals. One cuts her hair off entirely. She appears to need a listener, and revisits the web cam, speaking to it as if it were a personal friend.
Detached subjectivity in disillusioned people utilizing weapons defense--frequently poor and ill educated people-- is itself a scary tragedy. These film "characters" speak from that slice of the pie which is deeply alienated, easy to manipulate, and clearly anticipates death and a fiery end. Much of these hidden people's discourse is bolstered by gun rhetoric and fears of threatened speech; that which is interpreted as fundamental and absolutist and "right." They are beset with resentment, victimization and low-self esteem; the sort that fascist Germany easily adopted under its overly geometric wings. "Doom and gloom" dominates, as if all and none are listening and they only want agreement and to hear themselves talk. Such is their sociality, and their “independence” and their frighteningly alienated position on pleasure.
Gagnon's films are about those who “regurgitate all the propaganda, all the clichés, all their stress and anxiety in a big, tragic theater play” about fear, paranoia, damnation, threat, conspiracy, and dumbness and “the act or the play cannot really be seen without an intervention” like his coming along and framing them. Those he selects are “getting into that [Halloween] game [of dressing up] so well that one may not notice.” In fact they may be the same person playing three different people or three different people playing as one person in three different costumes, or coming in drag or aping an American accent, or are simply psychotic and passing in public as someone sane. These films are not about people, but about those who are filming themselves. Feminists filmed themselves in the sixties to see who they were apart from powerful media stereotypes and got a purchase on their own physical and emotional identities in contrast to the social roles into which they were routinely cast. That work created a critical outside. In this case, Gagnon similarly creates the critical outside through repurposing. He provides real clues as to the source of and identification with, not only those appalled by an increasingly armed, violent, and reactionary sector in the news; but for the "Open Carry" people in America and neo-Nazis in Europe; with the abuse of power in Ferguson and Mexico, and the plethora of monocultural sameness.
"Catastrophes contain a lot of information,” Gagnon states gently, “That's from Paul Virilio.”
Molly Hankwitz is a visual and media artist, living in San Francisco, CA. She holds a doctoral degree in Media and Communciations.