The onslaught of highly mediatized images and near-forgotten memories of racialized violence compelled Los Angeles based artist Michelle Dizon to make the video installation, Civil Society. In it, she explores seemingly disparate episodes of civil unrest separated by both decades and geographical distance. Her critical examinations of these histories and the medium of video itself allows the artist to make compelling links and to develop a phenomenological space that invites viewers to see through a new lens, what she has called, “a vision in ruins.” Through the use of a three-channel presentation and a video-editing process that avoids the usual tropes of montage, the artist deconstructs traditional forms of storytelling and reveals the interplay of reportage and preconceived racialized narratives with the dialectics of seeing.
The process of making Civil Society began in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and the French Riots occurred within two months of each other. Each surfaced issues of state-tolerated violence inflicted upon poor Black and immigrant populations, and led Dizon to consider the roles race and citizenship play in her city’s history of unrest. She started to recall her own experiences of the 1992 LA Riots, prompted by the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an African American man, by several police officers.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the southern seaboard of the United States, the lack of federal, state, and local government preparedness led to tens of thousands of residents being stranded in the floodwaters without food, drinking water, or shelter. Over one thousand people died, most of whom were poor and Black. Media coverage also presented racially biased portrayals of the stranded Black residents. Meanwhile, rioting began in the Paris neighborhood of Clichy-sous-Bois after three youths fled from police into a power substation and two of them, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, died from electrocution. The two were the children of North African immigrants, and their deaths exasperated long-existing tensions between French law enforcement officers and the African and Muslim communities.
The King Video
With his new Sony Handycam, bystander George Holliday captured Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King on March 3rd, 1991. One day later, thousands of evening news viewers watched the happenstance recording. The video brought issues of excessive use of force by police to the forefront of national news and nationwide discussion. It also seemed to provide irrefutable proof of the violence that Black people experience at the hands of the law. Yet, the following year, the same recording would become the piece of evidence that helped convince a jury to acquit the four white police officers charged with King’s attack.
Dizon examined the King footage, particularly how it had been used in the trial of the four officers. She found that the video had been presented to the jury in three different speeds: in real time; at 12% speed and at 6% speed. It is significant that the defense also dissected the video frame-by-frame and freeze-framed the content during the trial. The slow motion screenings and still images de-emphasized the severity of King’s assault and silenced the recorded exclamations of eyewitnesses. Thus, the manipulation of the video resulted in a systematic distortion and removal of content and meaning, which allowed the beating to be reinterpreted by its viewers.
In Civil Society, Dizon references the manipulation of the trial video by including a slow motion clip of the footage. The center channel projects a blurry recording that comes into focus on the police as they encircle King. The reduced speed and unidentifiable noises make it difficult to understand what one is seeing. The viewer might expect to see the police beating King, but instead the viewer sees nothing. This is counterpointed by the knowable element of the passage of time. The time stamp at the bottom of the footage registers that the two minute and twenty second segment contained only eight seconds of real time.
In her 2011 dissertation, Vision in Ruins, Dizon explains the King footage in light of the technology of video, “What this event reveals about video is that video alone, in fact, sees nothing. Video is not a device for seeing, nor is it an image produced from this seeing, but it is deployed as a proposition to the veracity of an event of vision.” The King video, even in real time, cannot speak for itself, as video requires interpretation and is often used to validate a preconceived narrative. Knowing this, the defense asserted authority over the narrative of the video, controlling the jury’s understanding of it and convincing them that the police used reasonable force when they beat King. This type of power, the ability to manipulate the perception of others and of an “Other,” routinely allows authorities to oppress and abuse people of color and other marginalized peoples without fear of consequence. This racist logic was used as the basis to prove the innocence of King’s assailants.
Dizon came to understand the King video as more than a mere recording. She explains:
“I started to think about the Rodney King tape, not so much as [an] eyewitness or as the truth to an event, but rather, as a kind of repository for cultural memory. In this repository lay not only the event of the Rodney King beating caught on video, but a whole set of apparati like the technology of video, the juridical and legal frameworks through which video was used, and the fundamental question of interpretation that cuts through all understandings of how it is that we think that we know something.”
Still, there was a rupture in the collective understanding of what the video portrayed. Dizon states, “If the jury could say that ‘we see innocence’ then those in the revolts could say that ‘we see brutality.’ In this difference lay the fact that one way of seeing could become universalized.” The 1992 LA Riots ignited out of condemnation for the jury’s decision to acquit the police, and the divide in the court’s and the public’s interpretation of the video, which was regularly screened on television in the year leading to the unrest. What this contradiction reveals is not so much that one way of seeing would become universalized—either by law or by civil unrest—but that vision itself is not universal at all.
Dizon’s use of the King video triggers a rupture in storytelling. It follows with the off camera sounds of someone walking across a room. Soon a film projector, identifiable by its distinct clicking noise, projects close-up footage of a street as vehicle tires zoom by. The footage plays for just a few seconds before the film strip comes loose. The projectionist struggles with the equipment and, after two more failed attempts, she successfully screens the film. In this segment, the artist emphasizes the technology of video, the human hand behind it, and its failures. The footage, which Dizon filmed at the exact location where police beat King, also signals an urgency to capture the past in the present. Decades later, the King video continues to resonate in our collective memory as a nation and it continues to be invoked in filmed instances of police brutality against Black people.
Dizon follows this with three successive segments of black and white archival footage. Interspersed with narration, these segments challenge the viewer’s ability to master the images they see. The first segment is of is of aerial footage of Los Angeles. Though each of the three channels project the same footage, it is never in sync. The second segment includes flashes of film footage from the 1965 Watts Rebellion that plays at sporadic intervals through each channel. The third segment projects three unique clips from a news broadcast on the Watts Rebellion, and the viewer’s eyes struggle to match the images with each voice being heard. Before the last segment, Dizon’s own voice asks, “What’s left, at least what’s not in ruins, you tell me.” The fragmented images of the deconstructed montage are remnants of a past that cannot be fully realized. This symbolizes a vision “in ruins”—those stories that remain unseen.
The Ruins of Civil Society
After several more segments, color footage of the Clichy-sous-Bois neighborhood in France appears as Dizon explains how the threat of police harassment led the three boys to flee. The center channel cuts to black and white archival footage of the Watts Rebellion, which portrays three Black boys as they scale a concrete fence. The reporter narrating the scene claims the boys are running away from a fire that he speculates they started. Although he admits that he is unsure of their involvement, he calls for a police unit. Suddenly, the channel cuts to a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois. Dizon explains that that the French boys run into it despite posted danger signs. When she mentions that their electrocution caused a neighborhood blackout, the video and music cuts out, and the silence becomes a metaphor for the two deaths.
The center channel then displays an apartment building wall with the spraypainted names of Benna and Traoré, the boys who died, and Dizon states how the civil unrest is known as a riot of immigrants. She clarifies, “…they’re not immigrants. They’re citizens. Second, third generation citizens.” She continues, “With this, I am thrown to the past.” The image quickly cuts to blackness. Then, via the center channel, a timestamp stamp appears. It is similar to that previously seen in the King clip, but it plays in real time. After a few moments, it is flanked by footage of the apartment building on fire. In these last segments, history, memory, geographies and time collapse.
The Ruins of Citizenship
After this moment, Dizon begins to reflect upon her experiences as a child of immigrants and as an American citizen. She states:
“I am swimming in voices not all my own
I am the daughter of immigrants
I am no one’s daughter
I am a citizen
I am not a citizen
I am one generation removed from a remote province in the third world
I don’t even know its name.”
In this passage, she expresses the precarious nature of citizenship, her existence in-between her ancestral past and her present, and she points to a generational forgetting prompted by her birth in a nation different from that of her parents. The artist asserts, “The closer I come to the nation, the further I move from the past.” Her voice cracks with a swell of emotion as she explains, “…I have no needs. I see nothing. I will forget. And this makes it possible to continue.”
Nations often expect immigrants and their children to forget their pasts through processes of assimilation that are meant to make them proper citizens of ‘‘civil’’ society. Yet, their perceived connections to those pasts jeopardize their belonging and, at times, endanger their lives. The same is true for those who, even generations removed from their ancestral pasts, were never meant to be citizens in the first place.
In the last segment of Civil Society, Dizon explains that, “To remain looking toward the past would mean to let this past die and no, every part of me says, ‘it must live on.’” This is counter to the earlier passage wherein the artist struggles with the pressure she feels to forget the past. She has now come to the realization that one must resist the pressure to forget one’s roots and insists that the past must be remembered. Not only that, she recognizes that it is the absence—those ruins that remain to be seen—that also shapes our present. In the end, the artist makes visible the politics of seeing that elide the experiences of marginalized peoples and sheds light upon the racism and xenophobia that continue to shape life and death across the globe.
Rose G. Salseda is a native Los Angeleno and a PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the politics of race in the United States and the visual art of Mexican American, Chicana/o, and African American artists. Currently, she is conducting research and writing for her dissertation, The Visual Art Legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which will provide an in-depth look at artworks made in response to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 uprising. Salseda is a 2015—2016 Dissertation Fellow at the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at UT Austin.