geert lovink on Tue, 9 Dec 2003 14:42:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Stephen Marshall (Guerrilla News Network)

Interview with Stephen Marshall
Guerrilla News Network's Digital Documentaries

By Geert Lovink

The political videos of Guerrilla News Network are a challenging affair,
both in terms of its content, aesthetics and distribution. Deeply hybrid,
GNN is crossing boundaries in such a professional­and easy­manner that it
almost seems, we have landed in the perfect, tactical media future. On GNN
it is Trance meets Chomsky. Without leaving behind the tradition of
political documentary video and investigative journalism, it is GNN's
unique quality to frame classic footage in an innovative television
format. Edited as high pulse videoclips the works are designed as
interactive art works and distributed simultaneously on VHS, DVD, as
television signal and last but not least streaming video content on the
web. In fact, the website is the centrepiece of the GNN operation and not
only works as a video portal but also serves as a platform for daily
written NewsWires. GNN topics range from environment, the War on Terror
and intelligence.  My favorite is S-11 Redux, a scratch video masterpiece
that jams American news footage; a delightful deconstruction of the late
2001 hysteria, leading up to the invasion of Aghanistan.

Canadian writer and video director Stephen Marshall has been involved in
desktop video and the handy-cam revolution since 1995 when he ran Channel
Zero, an 'underground' video magazine, which had wide distribution through
stores such as HMV, Tower and Virgin. After Channel Zero fell apart
Stephen worked as a DJ in New York and Toronto. In early 2000 he got
together with MTV's Josh Shore and together they created GNN. At the
height of the dotcom boom Guerrilla News Network was launched as a hot,
content-rich multimedia site. After having produced two videos, one on
diamond trade in Sierra Leone and one on CIA's involvement in drug
traffic, GNN merged with another alt-news web venture and attracted a few
other professionals. I met Stephen Marshall at Chicago's exciting Version
new media festival in March 2003, where we decided to keep track of each
other's movements. Exactly because of GNN's political overtone I kicked
off the interview about camcorder technologies and digital video
aesthetics. All the rest you can see and judge for yourself:

GL: Could you tell us something about your editing technique? You seem to
edit on the rhythm of the music, that's the feel you get, but perhaps the
content is not always ready to follow that logic. How do you solve that

SM: It is important to know that, besides being a video director, I am
also a progressive trance DJ. And I have always been deeply interested in
the alchemy of sound and live 'editing' of beats that happens in the
clubland culture of Djing. And so when I cut videos, it is really just an
extension of that process. The visuals are just another layer of meaning
but not necessarily a more important one.

I think that anyone who is seriously dedicated to the creation of
transformative media - and by that I mean media, which has, as its core
goal, the (sub) conscious evolution of its audience the study of human
perception is critical. You simply cannot attempt to produce relevant
socio-political media and ignore the avenues of receptivity that are
innate to your audience. And we know that, in that respect, sound precedes
image. Human beings hear before they see. Before there was light, there
was 'the sound'. You know? It's just fundamental. And what I learned from
Djing is that there is a whole array of reactions and responses that can
be triggered in people through the purposeful architecture of sonic
frequencies. At least in the way that they move their bodies. And so much
of the art of Djing is about building a narrative with the music, one that
is inclusive and impactful enough that people never leave the dance floor.

Applying this to GNN, my intention has always been to merge the subliminal
elements of the electronic music culture with the overt and traditionally
barren transmission of socio-political data. And not just because of my
own artistic fetishes. There has been such a huge dropping off in the
relevance and popularity of the documentary genre, and all news
programming for that matter, which is really quite alarming. If young
people are not engaged in the gathering and trading of data that directly
informs their perception of the society, the potential for a widespread
tactical overthrow of the system is threatened. And if activist content
producers are not willing to use all the means at their disposal to
compete with the mainstream broadcast spectacle, then they are not serious
about building a movement to silence it. So, in my approach to the editing
and design of the GNN NewsVideos, the primary focus is always on building
synergetic media that is driven by a musical narrative. Because that is
what the younger generation responds to. Nike knows this. Coca-Cola knows
this. And we should not ignore the time and research they have put into
attracting and conforming the attention of the youth through their
advertising campaigns.

In many cases I have let the music guide the editing process and conformed
it to that. Because the original concept for the GNN NewsVideos was that
they exist as a new form of 'enhanced' music video. Political films that
were scored by pre-produced ambient or beat-driven tracks. So right from
the start, we knew that there was going to be a tension because we
wouldn't just be cutting the video and then sticking in loops after the
fact. The editing would be done to the track itself. So I would spend a
lot of time looking for tracks that evoked the frequency of the message
inherent in the video we were producing. And then let the music guide my
cuts, my design techniques and the placement of the content.

Let me give you an example.

The first video I edited for GNN was called The Most Dangerous Game. I had
shot the principle interviews a month before and decided that I wanted to
go with a very basic, split-screen design that incorporated flashes of
white text centred between the two screens, on the bottom of the frame. To
create a hypnotic effect. And we had made an arrangement with Mitchel
Akiyama, a Montreal-based producer, to use one of his tracks but when I
began to listen to his music, it was so haunting and beautiful that it
began to shape the way I was approaching the narrative. The song became
primary and I found myself literally cutting the documentary to the music.
You can imagine how weird and backward that is but I felt totally
compelled to maintain the integrity of his composition and warped the
spoken word and text around the track, itself. So when people watched The
Most Dangerous Game, the first thing they always said was: 'the music is
so perfect for that' or 'I can't believe how well that goes with the

Obviously this was not going to be a sustainable approach to editing the
NewsVideos. And since then I have developed relationships with DJs who
take MP3 clips of the various speakers and then create loops that I can
drop in behind them, which are specifically produced to mirror that
person's vocal pitch and the tempo of their speech. In the case of
AfterMath, we actually worked directly with Paris who gave us individual
tracks for each segment and then came to the studio in post to make sure
that the speeds and tempos were all synchronized. So it is an evolving

GL: Can you tell us something about the background of the info graphics
that you are using? Who is your main source of inspiration there? Is it in
video art or documentary film making or rather something from the world of

SM: My first and most decisive exposure to the use of typography and
text-driven design, as a pure art form, was in Peter Greenaway's The
Pillow Book. That film, and its approach to cinematic composition of text,
specifically mandarin characters, was so beautiful that it really inspired
and informed most of the work I have done since 1997. It just added an
extra layer of information and, in many ways, was the next level evolution
of the design that Tomato had done for all the Underworld videos off
Dubnobassinmyheadman, which were also hugely inspiring, though not so much
in a practical way. More just for their obvious love for 'type' and
re-contextualization of it in the beat-driven electronica of Underworld's
seminal trax.

In all of GNN's work, the primary emphasis is on the functional
dissemination of information. It may move quickly, and require multiple
viewings, but the bottom line impetus is transmitting useful
socio-political data. So, in that regard, I have also been very influenced
by the template approach of the various 24-hour cable channels. The way
they use their little news tickers and the Flame-enriched motion graphics
to dig deep into the collective unconscious of the spectatorial masses.
It's all very experimental in its own way.

When I was running Channel Zero, I was actually brought into CNN by its
Chairman and CEO right before they got taken over by Time Warner in 1997.
He wanted me to help them re-design the network and to potentially create
a youth-driven news channel. I used the opportunity to work our designers
to develop a series of design templates for the network. These were all
based on using a new palette of colours and background designs as well as
placing the newscasters in smaller boxes allowing for more space for text.
We also spent a lot of time conceiving of ways to make the information
presented more visceral so we came up with designs that featured key words
that would pulse through the screen when they were spoken by the

These days I get most of my ideas from magazines and online design
journals. There is such a powerful renaissance occurring in the realm of
design but it is so seldom used to further any political or social goals.
So it's actually quite easy to look at what the kids are doing with Flash
and Photoshop and just riff on it within the political context of the
videos we are producing.

GL: Could you, in theory, produce all your clips with a DV camera and a PC
or Mac with video editing tools or do you still have to go into a studio?
Where will we be in a few years from now, in terms of tactical media

SM: Everything that I make can be produced entirely on a laptop and a
firewire cable. Of course, the larger projects really depend on drive
space, but with 3 x 60 gig drives, you can basically cut a feature film.
The next crucial element is software, of course, and even then we only
really need a good desktop editor like Final Cut Pro as well as some basic
design tools like Photoshop or After Effects.

Tactical media tools have become 100% portable. I remember that when I was
cutting AfterMath, I had to do a series of talks around the US and so I
took the video on the road with me. It was a huge design project with some
parts expanding over 16 layers of video. On one flight to Chicago, I was
actually designing this sequence that dealt with the failure of the
military to intercept the hijacked aircraft on 9/11. I had cut out images
of the actual planes and was creating an animation of the Pentagon attack,
probably one of the more complicated design sequences I have ever
executed. I didn't know it but there were a group of passengers all
sitting behind me watching me cut. And one of them came up to me and asked
me if I was playing a video game. I laughed because, even though to many
people this would be considered a relatively complex process, for me it
has become the equivalent of walking around with a Gameboy.

I was actually just in Iraq. And before we left, we were warned by some
journalists not to bring too much equipment because it could get jacked
driving across from the Jordanian border. So we just took our cameras and
flak jackets and left our laptops behind. But once we got there, I
realized that it would have been fine. There was no real danger of getting
robbed and I could have been producing video of the situation in Baghdad
right from my little hotel room, and uploading to the site thru the net
café downstairs. So, it's all here right now, from a tactical media
perspective. What we need to focus on is the development of the
infrastructure that will disseminate these clips. We need to think in
terms of our own broadcast enterprise so that it is not such an atomistic,
singular culture.

GL: Some of the people that I spoke with are critical of your populist
approach. They also see your affiliation with conspiracy theory as a
symptom of leftist media populism. How do you respond to such remarks?
Where does investigative journalism stops and turns into conspiracy? Do
you see such criticism as envy because GNN so successfully brings together
pop aesthetics with critical content?

SM: It's interesting that you say 'populist'. I was just with Naomi Klein
and we were talking about differences between American and European
broadcasters. I was saying that, after being in Iraq and watching a lot of
the BBC, I was quite impressed by some of the coverage of the war. And,
specifically, about a series they had run challenging the virtues of
capitalism. But she was not at all impressed. And made the point that
although the BBC has more intellectual vigour and is able to find an
audience for programming that publicly challenges the foundation of their
economic system, there is a more ingrained elitism, which pervades their
coverage. One example she used was that the BBC always uses the word
'populist' to describe revolutionary or insurgent movements in countries
like Bolivia or Venezuela. As if to give the impression that they are the
products of some irrational mass hysteria. Instead of a deeply intrinsic
and instinctual reaction to an entrenched socio-political power base that
has, at its core, militarized defence mechanisms. And looking back at the
coverage of the recent Bolivian protests, I found her to be very accurate
in her characterization.

Like the BBC, or any organized social cluster, the so-called Left has its
own entrenched elitist core. And one of their defining conventions is the
wholescale rejection of any deconstruction deemed 'conspiratorial'. From
Noam Chomsky to Chip Berlet, they simply deny, and in many cases, ridicule
those who attempt to piece together disparate facets of a larger picture
in order to understand how power operates through covert channels to
achieve its prime directives. I feel that this is one of the primary
faults with the Left elite. And one of the major reasons for their
increasingly diminished relevance with younger generations. Because they
refuse to expand the horizon of their intellectual inquiry. For them,
there is no tangible value for theory that falls outside of the
institutional critique.

But what kind of world would we live in if Aristotle hadn't mused on the
nature of the heavenly spheres or if Newton hadn't extrapolated on the
laws of gravity... or Einstein on the quotient of relativity? Or, more to
the point, if Woodward and Bernstein hadn't gone down the muddy path
toward exposing the Watergate scandal? All of these people built their
cases, at one crucial juncture or another, without factual data to back
them up. All of them had to postulate at certain times and instead of
drawing society away from the critical work of catalysing an overthrow of
the structural paradigm, these 'theories' created entirely new constructs
for the society to perceive itself through.

Surely there is a place, in all modes of inquiry and critique, for this
type of scientific adventurism... it is how we get from one place to the
next. For now I think these intellectuals do us a mild disservice by
looking down their noses at even the most humble attempt to piece together
and understand what is a very simplified and untenable explanation of the

With respect to your question about GNN, I don't think that we have a
conspiratorial ethos. Nor, even, an 'affiliation with conspiracy theory'.
All of our (text and video) stories are vetted with traditional
journalistic standards and scrutiny. We have certainly never been accused
of disseminating misinformation. Perhaps one could accuse us of slumming
with conspiracy theorists, but only in one of our video productions,
Aftermath: Unanswered Questions From 9/11.

In Aftermath we sought to gather perspectives from nine individuals, who
collectively represent a spectrum of beliefs about what occurred that day.
And, yes, in that film we did feature people who wholeheartedly believe
that 9/11 was orchestrated by a covert US intelligence cell, working
through Al Qaeda. But we also featured a major U.S. attorney who's deepest
conspiracy theory is that the airlines did not do enough to protect their
passengers. And a long-serving civil rights attorney who is concerned with
the impact that the USA PATRIOT Act will have on civil society. So there
was a spectrum of opinions presented. And none of them were factually
inaccurate. Not even the revelations concerning the Northwoods Document,
which was authored by a former general in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and
which called for attacks on US civilians to justify a war on Cuba. But
anyone who finds that or other facts untenable immediately accuses us of
conspiracy theory. Just as I imagine they did when Gary Webb broke the
Dark Alliance story in 1996, proving that the CIA had engaged in drug
traffic to support the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. He was called a
conspiracy theorist when the story first came out. But now it is accepted
as historical fact. And, interestingly enough, we actually won our prize
at Sundance for Crack The CIA, which is just a graphically enhanced,
beat-driven rehash of the Contra scandal. So clearly young people are
looking for answers to questions that go beyond the intellectual theory
that is the elite Left's principal strategy for overhauling the system.

If that is really what they are trying to achieve.

Because the mass public will not help anyone overhaul anything unless they
see tangible evidence, on a very base level, of complicit wrongdoing and
overt criminality. They do not respond to hyper-verbosity. They want it
tabloid style. And we can either snobbishly reject that 'populist'
approach or take our cues from the mainstream realm of advertising and
music television and deliver socio-political commentary in the most
charismatic style possible.

Weaponize the media.

And this is what we are trying to do with GNN to help corroborate a
functional algorithm for understanding the machinations of power. So if
critics of the work see GNN as somehow reaching down to the lowest common
denominator by questioning the motives and potential criminality of the
covert bodies operating on behalf of the American elites, then I have to
question what their motives are. And if they have really thought it all
out now, in the year 2003 with a Bush in the White House and the advent of
a nuclear battlefront. Obviously they are not having much success. The
Left is invisible in American political life. Can't they see or admit to
themselves that it's not working. We need to overthrow the power structure
(in both the Left and Right!) and this will only happen by creating a
widespread and widely held level of public distrust of those who
manipulate it for their own ends.

As to the issue of jealousy. I have always taken shit for my designer
approach to tactical media, which has usually been a hit with the kids.
That and my talkative personality tend to make people think I am perhaps a
little too cocky.

I don't think it is a matter of envy, though. At least, I hope not. It is
more an issue of an establishment ethos making itself transparent in the
Left elite. That they are just as old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy and the
monarchies. Just look at what Roger Ailes is doing with Fox NewsChannel.
Have you seen it? They are using some of the highest-end graphics
generators to filter the Pentagon's press releases into the public
consciousness. You think we have time to sit around debating whether or
not to use drum'n'bass as a background score? The spectacle is in full
effect and we need to build ourselves into a powerful rival if we are
going to have any tangible shot at the hearts and minds of the next

GL: What interests me in your work is that you have not dropped the
talking heads. In fact you have reframed talking experts within a
contemporary environment of music video clips and computer graphics. Can
you imagine to move on from there and drop the talking heads altogether?
In short: how can critical content be delivered within screen culture if
we do not want to use the written or spoken word?

SM: I do think we can evolve the broadcast template to a level where the
viewer does not need to see and image of the spokesperson in order to
digest their words. Though that will have an effect on the way that they
process the information.

 From a pure news perspective, there is an element of credibility that is
assured by showing the talking heads. You know they are the authors of the
ideas. You can see their faces and look into their eyes. There is, at
least, the illusion of contact. And I have tried to stay with that on a
fundamental level. So that what I have been doing with the
re-contextualizing of the standard talking heads is really just merging
the traditional documentary form with the more modern approach used to
sell ideas or products. In a sense, we are 'selling' or 'commodifying' the
ideas of our intellectuals and experts. Selling them to the viewers as
aggressively as Coke sells sugar water. And I am not sure that we would be
as successful if we just dropped the talking heads altogether. Because I
think people need to see that person, hear that voice to know what they
are dealing with. And whether they want to 'buy' that perspective.

However, as you know, there is a relatively new genre of film that does
not depend on talking heads nor spoken word to make profoundly impacting
and controversial political statements. The Qatsi Trilogy by Godfrey
Reggio and Philip Glass have become cult films with global reach. And they
translate so well because they are driven purely by the universal
languages of image and music.

How many raves have you been to with Koyaanisqatsi playing on multiple
screens on behind the DJ? I've been to hundreds. It is a ubiquitous
presence in the underground culture. And this is one goal I have for the
GNN videos. That, eventually, we might begin to create works that are so
subliminally subversive and non-specific in their 'language' that they can
be played anywhere, in any environment, and still conjure some instinct
for critical enthusiasm on the part of the audience.

GL: What is the main source of distribution for GNN? Do you see broadcast
TV as the ultimate opportunity or would you rather bet on an increased
distribution via DVD and the Net, combined with screenings in halls and

SM: Without sounding too idealistic, all of the above. GNN's main source
of distribution is through our website. But that is only the first tier of
our horizontal distribution network. It serves as a free, viral platform
for the videos, which have been the catalysing force for our 4000+
registered online community who interact through the Forums. We also sell
our DVDs from the site and get a lot of sales from people who have shows
on community television stations. Our deal with them is that as long as
they buy one DVD, they can play the videos as much as they want. So there
is a broad level of distribution occurring through broadcast TV, just not
the corporate networks.

Through our work with Interscope and other, smaller, record companies our
videos have been given a platform that reaches a broader audience, but the
closest we came to having an MTV debut was with the video we produced for
Eminem's White America. Unfortunately, on the day it was set to launch,
CNN did a feature on it and brought on one of the parents of a Columbine
victim. Within a matter of minutes they had reduced the video to a
glorification of the infamous school shootings, pronounced it vile and
opportunistic. And Interscope was forced to pull it from MTV. As a result,
it got approximately 6 million views online.

But the most successful and rewarding of all has been the public
screenings of AfterMath. These started with a sold-out premiere in San
Francisco's historic Herbst Theatre. The event had been organized by a
group of local 9/11 activists and they had raised money to buy 1000s of
beautiful, full colour movie posters. The hype was massive and we had
about 1500 people show up for the screening, with 500 turned away. When
other groups heard about this, we began to get a flood of requests to
provide DVDs and posters for local events. These culminated in a North
America-wide screening on September 11, 2003 to commemorate the 2-year
anniversary of the tragedy. Screenings were held in large theatres, public
libraries and even people's homes. Many had long, formal debates after the
film to discuss the issues it raises. Since we completed the DVD,
AfterMath has been translated into 4 languages.

So, on a microcosmic scale, we are pushing the envelope in each realm of
exhibition. Apart from the site, we have also distributed the DVDs through
retail video chains. But, only the large independents. Mainstream
companies won't stock the films and we cannot get a distributor to
represent us. So it's still a grass roots thing and we're happy that way.

GL: In October 2003, half a year after the Bush invasion/liberation of
Iraq you visited Baghdad. If we read the dispatches on your website, we
get a sense of both the beauty and violence of the place. This visit must
have moved you. To what extend did it challenge your perceptions of the
war? Are the anti-war protesters still right? I suppose so. But how about
the intense reality over there? Did that overturn the global media

SM: Visiting Iraq was a transformational experience. Not because of the
hyper-realism and immediacy of witnessing a culture reacting to a major
military occupation, but, more, because I was able to step directly into
the meta-narrative that exists beyond the veil of America's shallow,
Pentagon-sanctioned media coverage. While we were there, we began to think
of the experience in terms of a virtual reality game. It was so palpably
dangerous, chaotic and graphically stunning. And so much more complex than
what we had been told. We jokingly referred to it as Grand Theft Auto:
Baghdad. The tableau was so rich. And the characters we met the most
incredibly diverse and eloquent people. From Rana, our chain-smoking
pro-Saddam translator, to Lt. Colonel Nate Sassaman, the legendary West
Point quarterback now running tactical operations against the insurgency
in the Sunni Triangle. At one point, when asked how he would describe the
experience of being in Iraq, Sassaman smiled and said, 'I am living in,
like, a totally surreal movie.'

So I know we were not the only ones who felt it was something

And yes, it totally overturned the media spectacle and illustrated how
truly dangerous the media has become. In that they have simply accepted
the new rules of war and wilfully allowed themselves to be 'embedded'
without ever gauging the experience of the average Iraqi. When was the
last time we saw an Iraqi citizen speaking for themselves on television or
in the mainstream press? It's so brutally ethnocentric that you have to
wonder just how the producers and editors can sustain their apologist
rhetoric without ever being struck by the vacuous negative space being
occupied by the Iraqis, themselves.

As far as how the experienced affected my interpretation of the war from
the minute I stepped on the plane to Jordan, my perceptions were
challenged. Like many of us in progressive social movements, I was against
the war. Not so much because of its stated objective of removing Saddam
Hussein, whatever the justification, but more because it was being
prosecuted by individuals that had established business relationships with
him during some of his most brutal and repressive periods. Bush and Cheney
are just so nakedly disingenuous that it would be difficult to support
even the most humane of policies because you know that their hearts just
aren't in anything.

But when we met Frank al-Bayati, an exiled Iraqi freedom fighter who had
been rescued by US soldiers after being left for dead by Saddam's soldiers
and then given a new life in America, on the flight to Jordan, it changed
everything. And I would challenge any steadfast anti-war protestor to
stand at the border of Iraq and watch Frank, weeping uncontrollably, kiss
the ground of a country he was forced to flee due to his political
beliefs, and then tell him that the Americans didn't do the right thing. I
certainly was hard pressed to summon even the most remote degree of
cynicism. And as we travelled around the country, filming his emotional
return to a family that had assumed the worst, our sense of confusion and
conflict only deepened. It was a profound experience.

Of course, we know Frank's return to a 'free' Iraq is only a sideshow to
the American boot print, which has been placed firmly on Arab soil. And
that was only made clearer by our time with U.S. troops stationed in the
Sunni Triangle. As you probably know, this is where all the fighting is
happening and we were able to spend a few nights with the troops stationed
out there. It was an equally transformative experience. We met top-level
colonels and lowest rank privates, all of who were imbued with an
almost-uncanny level of humanity and integrity and an open compassion for
the Iraqi people. Many spoke very candidly about their fears and lack of
enthusiasm for fighting especially when they only signed up for the
reserves to get a college education! But what they all had in common was a
sense of pride in the notion that they were working directly with the
rebuilding of schools and hospitals. And why wouldn't they? These are the
very people who can relate to the kind of world social inequity the Iraqis
are facing. Because they are the poor and lower middle classes of the

But by no means less intelligent.

In one of the more paradigm-busting moments of the trip, we interviewed an
African American tank commander named Hollis who proceeded to deconstruct
the war, referencing the Third Punic War, and citing analogies to Star
Trek and the battle between humans and the Borg. It was truly
mind-blowing. But what got me the most was when he explained the
Administration's need to lie in order to justify the war. It went
something like this: 'You can't tell mothers who have lost their sons that
they died fighting to save our way of life. That they were taken to Iraq
to fight for what is the globalisation of capitalism. You have to present
them with a war fought over ideology. That is the way it has always been.
But we understand very well that we are fighting for economic reasons. And
we should. It is either us or them. Falafel or Big Mac. And that is worth
dying for.'

For me, Iraq was about finding the human strand of DNA that runs through
all of the conflict and betrayal of our innermost desire to be one. I
found it in everyone I met everyone who was on the ground in that country
was united by that elemental desire. No one, not even Saddam's staunchest
supporters would say that he was a good or kind or wise leader. But the
one idea most everyone would accept is that the reasons for America's
drive to Baghdad were never clearly and honestly spoken by its architects.
And that, in the end, even the biggest lies will yield poisoned harvests
for their advocates.


URL of this interview:

Channel Zero's second video magazine (January 1997):

Stephen Marshall's Baghdad daries:

Punk'd In Saddam City

Bombing The Baghdad Hotel

Crossing Over

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