Vision Machine: a web of stories, networked solidarities / The Globalisation Tapes: a Vision Machine collaboration

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Feature by Vision Machine Collective

Sharman Sinaga's granddaughter looks bored as her grandfather demonstrates for the camera his favoured technique of market liberalisation: holding union activists upside down in flooded fields. He mimics their gargles as they choke in the mud. He could hold down two or three at a time he boasts; he seems faintly nostalgic in the dim light and the smoke; his only regret, that his arms and knees aren't what they used to be.

The orders to hold people upside-down came from the top, he tells us in a chilling scene, from Surhato; they came also with support from high on Capitol Hill.



The Globalisation Tapes

The tapes were made in collaboration with those a little further down the pile, closer to the mud (and the rubber and the oil), closer to the memories of the massacre that cleared the way for Indonesia's “modernisation”. It is this collaboration that is Vision Machine.

Founded in 2001, Vision Machine is a not-for-profit filmmakers' collective that seeks to create an international video production and distribution network to research, analyse and respond to the conditions and mechanisms of economic, political and military power. In particular, Vision Machine focuses on the many forms of systemic violence and terror - from organised mass murder to dangerous working conditions - and the contradictions this devastation poses to the dominant notions of progress and history, the mythology of power, and the religion of capital.

Using their own forbidden history as a case study, the Indonesian filmmakers of The Globalisation Tapes trace the development of contemporary globalisation from its roots in colonialism to the present. Through direct and disturbing first-hand accounts, hilarious improvised interventions, collective debate and archival collage, the film exposes the devastating role of militarism and repression in building the “global economy”, and explores the relationships between trade, third-world debt, and international institutions like the IMF and the World Trade Organisation. It is a densely lyrical and incisive account of how these institutions shape and enforce the corporate world order (and its “systems of chaos”).

The project's aims were not merely to excavate and expose a history that had been buried with the countless corpses in the flooded fields of the palm plantations. The Globalisation Tapes set out both to chronicle a history and its legacy, and to map out and re-imagine ways forward. Its production model was also a social model, the articulation and practice of a political vision. Vision Machine does not drop in, grab a story and exit; at the heart of the project is a process of initiation and the building of networked solidarities.

The Globalisation Tapes is only one, and perhaps one of the more sober, of the works that Vision Machine has produced. It is one episode in, or perhaps a sobering back story to, what is unfolding as a global soap-opera on the spread of terror - the precision of its machinery, the banality of its administration, the fascination of its power, its prodigious production of a sometimes spectral, sometimes spectacular, violence.

Networked solidarities

In refiguring this violence, Vision Machine attempts to speak the unspeakable, and to do so in collaboration with those who have been systematically silenced. Giving voice and vision to the particular histories and imaginings of our various collaborators requires the development of new and collective technologies of political imagination, new forums for reflection and communication.

As a global story, it's one that can only be told globally, by diverse collectives around the world, working together from the many ground zeros of global violence. In this way, the project can reveal a systematic and structural pattern underlying quite different histories - for example, the common strategic impulses that gave rise to the death squads in Indonesia in 1965, in El Salvador in 1985, and in Colombia today; or the growth of Salvadoran gangs in LA and Kurdish gangs in London.

Weaving this historical tapestry entails establishing a network of on-going, experimental filmmaking and research workshops around the world. Each of these collective workshops includes roughly ten volunteers of diverse backgrounds, with special efforts to invite people whose lives have been deeply affected by the issues of violence and power upon which we focus. Participants are neither actors nor passive documentary subjects; instead, they learn to mine their imaginations and communal histories, cultivate their creativity, and become fluent in the techniques of cinematic representation. Though there is far more to filmmaking than technical expertise, all participants are encouraged to learn the technical craft of film production, from shooting to sound recording to editing.

There are currently collectives in the East End of London (where we are based) and in North Sumatra, Indonesia (which made The Globalisation Tapes), and new groups are being established in Los Angeles. Among the participants in LA are Salvadorian gang-members, part of the cultural legacy of Reagan's regional policy and the death squads they spawned. Hounded from their country, many are now being deported back. Vision Machine will travel with them; and thus the story, the history, the strategy and its effects, lead on to El Salvador. There the death squads that terrorised them and their parents into exile are reforming to welcome them. In the story Vision Machine is telling, in the history it is detailing, international links between distant locations are simultaneously real and narrative - an infrastructure that makes use of the internet and local wireless networks, a chain dream, a series of images, the documentary trail of an investigation, a community of experiences, a collective of aspirations.

Spectres, threads and knots

Spectral figures hover in the heat-haze and atomic hum of the Nevada desert; they are rehearsing manoeuvres in preparation for some unspecified, but imminent, epochal event. Marshalling the operations is Bob Getcher [this is not his real name], the original Rambo, he has a gun in each room of his home, a home in which his wife has crowded an entire wall in the tanning room with images of Hitler.

There are ghosts that haunt the flooded palm plantations of Firdaus, North Sumatra where countless had their blood spilled into the muddy water during the massacres of '65. There is a strange communication between these ghosts and the spectral figures in the distant Nevada desert, strange threads knot them together.

What threads connect the Nevada desert and the flooded palm plantations of north Sumatra? What tracks lead from there to the White House, to LA, from LA to San Salvador?

Vision Machine is a vehicle that swerves and lurches between documentary and delirium as it follows these tracks, mapping this terrain. Its wildly imaginative and rigorously researched works aim to tease out some of these knotted threads. Only a vehicle that swerves between documentary and delirium could chart the trail down which such a twisted plot leads. An inextricable element of the Vision Machine project is the playing out of a psychic economy, a moral economy, the mechanisms of an immense and pervasive production of images; this is a project as much about the imaginary and dreams of power as its administrative and material apparatus.

Insofar as the present is intelligible only through a series of images and fantasies, to tell the history of the present is to tell the history of phantasmagoria and stories, and their reality effects, to explore the grammar of genre that so profoundly marks our desires and sense of the every-day. So Vision Machine experiments with cinematic and performative ways to open up that grammar, to make it articulate another sense, a sense that runs against its grain; opens the archives and the airwaves to subversive re-signification.

Infiltrations and interventions

Rather than “dramatise” history, we work through interventions, infiltrations and provocations in archival and public space. So, for example, instead of creating a fictional drama about an oil dynasty working with the US president to secure oil fields in post-war Iraq, we might work with a Kurdish refugee in London, groom her to become an oilman, and infiltrate her back into Iraq where she might lobby for oil concessions; this material might be intercut with material from Dallas and CIA training films.

Our projects have successfully infiltrated right-wing militias, religious cults and political organisations. The success of the projects, however, does not depend on the success of the infiltrations - catalogues of failure often produce cinematic material as rich and telling as successful infiltrations. Moreover, such experience also fosters concrete insight into processes of exclusion and hierarchies of power. Indeed, more essential than any particular infiltration is the documentation of participants' process of becoming other - and indeed becoming master - as they explore the roles of the powerful, carefully studying the gestures, speech and thoughts of those at the apex of the interlocking systems of economic power and political violence. What emerges is an excavation of the spaces between and beyond mimicry and mimesis, and the performance of public space.

Imagine yourself as Lee Raymond, the Chief Executive Officer of Exxon-Mobil, the world's oil company, as he reviews the production reports from the Acehnese gas fields protected by the Indonesian Army and paramilitary death squads. Imagine yourself as Ronald Reagan, rehearsing the grave and serious gestures which attend his 4 March 1987 admission about the Iran Contra scandal: “One thing still upsetting me, however, is that no one kept proper records of meetings or decisions. This led to my failure to recollect whether I approved an arms shipment before or after the fact. I did approve it; I just can't say specifically when. Well, rest assured, there's plenty of record-keeping now going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Imagine what Ronnie or Lee must have dreamt at night, while death squads hunt, kill and terrorised nameless, numberless people at their behest, safeguarding their interests, on their payrolls. What is the source of this will to murder, to disappear-neutralise-erase - not only individuals, but whole communities, movements, entire ways of thinking? What does it feel like to be the agent of such a will? What smile bears witness to the wheels of such terrible machines in motion? Perhaps to understand this is to also imagine a way to break this will, to annihilate, and to give substance to a new vision of the possible.

Topics: Media