From Evidentiary Presentation to Artful Re-Presentation: Media Images, Civil Rights Documentaries, and the Audiovisual Writing of History

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IN RELAYING ITS HISTORY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1950s and 1960s, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's permanent installation relies heavily on archival televisual footage. Although the walls of the installation contain pictures and written commentary, the audiovisual displays spread throughout the various galleries dominate a visitor's attention. As one might expect, the exhibition on Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 (titled "Birmingham: The World Is Watching!") includes footage of the local white police attacking black school children with guard dogs and water hoses. These widely circulated media images are used in two very different and competing ways, one grounded in the aesthetics of the image and the other in its veracity. Upon entering the Birmingham venue, a visitor immediately encounters a glass wall with water cascading down and hazy images projected in slow motion behind it. These images, presented in no historical chronological order, are edited in an impressionistic manner that weaves back to images of black children being bitten by dogs and sprayed with water hoses, and paced for maximum emotional impact. The display operates on a purely visceral level, transforming the mass media images into an "art" object, thereby offering an aesthetic experience. Yet this aestheticization does not weaken the power of these images but rather transforms that power from a cognitive one with informational reverberations to an affective one with emotional resonance.

In contrast to this video sculpture, the companion display partakes of a documentary mode. On the wall to the right of the video installation stands a large storefront window, seven various-sized flickering television sets and two radios on display, with "Harold's TV" scrawled on a front door to the right. The TV sets "broadcast" a seven-minute multiscreen documentary with the same title as the venue, "Birmingham: The World Is Watching" (n.d.). The installation, literally in a display window, continues in the spectacle mode of the water wall, but in a theatrical presentational style rather than an aesthetic sculptural one. A UHF image appears on the television screens, "WBRC 6 Birmingham" on some, "WBMG Ch 42 Birmingham" on others. Although there is only one audio track, the visual images on the seven television sets fluctuate in various configurations, averaging three different images among them at any one time. The first part of the documentary is structured as a nightly newscast, beginning with an offscreen voice announcing, "This week's lead story is the escalating civil rights protest against segregation." A voice-over narration of the events accompanies on-screen images similar to those in the other installation, followed by 1963 media interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, and the Reverend Abraham Lincoln Woods, Jr. The archival interview with Woods fades to a current one with him, introducing a new section of the documentary on contemporary recollections from participants in the 1963 campaign. These talking heads, testifying about their experiences of the events, are interwoven with more media footage of the incidents. At the end of the simulated telecast, all of the television sets tune to the same frequency, broadcasting in unison the same images of, as might be expected, black children being attacked by fire hoses and police dogs. In other words, the events of the civil rights movement were eventually able to tame the media and command its full attention, albeit with images that function as spectacle.

Although the spectacular nature of the water wall video installation is obvious because of its form, the logic of spectacle also informs the realistically depicted installation as well because of its reliance on media images. Despite the sharp contrast between these two exhibits, one in an artistic mode and the other a documentary one, they both highlight a major problem encountered by documentaries seeking to write an audiovisual history of the civil rights movement in the southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s. …