1968 and Its Legacies Symposium, Or, The Historiohappening and Beyond

1968 and Its Legacies Symposium at Kings College London. Photo by and courtesy Camille Aisa.

In a conference that brought together so many political activists of the long 1968—including Tariq Ali, Kathleen Cleaver, and Mark Rudd—alongside numerous academic historians, it is unsurprising that there were tensions, at times voiced and at others latent: between activism and academic reflection, and between the first-person voices of oral history and the third-person narratives of scholarly historiography. 1968 and its Legacies, an interdisciplinary three-day symposium held at King’s College, London from 15th to 17th June, appeared to prioritise the former, in what has become a dominant trope of 1960s socio-political historiographies. (Marianne DeKoven, for one, has referred to this as the prevalence of ‘testimony, either pro or con, from a former “sixties person.”’)1Marianne DeKoven, Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), x. Combining keynotes, screenings, academic presentations, and group discussions, 1968 and its Legacies concluded a major programme of workshops and film screenings to mark the fiftieth anniversary of 1968.2Workshops and screenings were held at King’s College and the British Film Institute (BFI) throughout May and June 2018. King’s College also hosted a series of six workshops, focusing on the impact of radical politics and social movements in 1968 on various disciplines and interest areas, including: cinema; popular music; urbanism; technology; psychiatry and institutional critiques of medicine; and education. An adjacent postgraduate conference, titled Women in the Wake of May 68, focused on the impact of May 1968 on French women in the period. Keynote speakers from a range of disciplines and political backgrounds reflected on the seismic changes experienced during the period, often—though not always—by incorporating highly-situated reflections on those movements and their personal contributions to them.3Exceptions included keynote talks by political historian Gerd-Rainer Horn and political historian, writer, and activist Tariq Ali, both of whom presented historical overviews of the density of national and international struggles and insurrections in the period; whereas the keynotes by moving-image scholars David E. James and Sylvia Harvey focused, respectively, on the radical American film collective Newsreel and on the legacies of 1968 in British independent filmmaking and television up to the inception of Channel 4.

­The tensions between activism and academia were made most explicit by Phil Cohen, who participated in the London Street Commune movement between 1969 and 1970, became an academic at the University of East London in the 1980s, and has since not only contributed to the MayDay Rooms archive, but has also interrogated such archival practices in his recent book Archive that, Comrade (2018). In an aside on Friday’s ‘Media and Memory’ panel, Cohen remarked that ‘Life is not an academic exercise’, which seemed more paradoxical than platitudinous, at least in the context of Cohen’s past and present lives. If Cohen’s comment implied that the conference was marked by an unbridgeable gap between the ‘life’ or lives of activism in the late 1960s and the ‘academic exercises’ of historians in the neoliberal age of the UK university, then film and other audiovisual media provided delegates with a means through which the intervening space could be explored and challenged.

Although the symposium was not presented primarily as a Film Studies event, screenings of clips and films played a significant part throughout it, constituting moving images as a form of ‘historiophoty’, in Hayden White’s terms.4Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, vol. 93, no. 5 (1988): 1193-1199. Given the wide range of topics explored at the symposium, which were often presented in contrasting panels, a comprehensive account is not possible.5The eight panels emphasised the global diversity of ‘1968s’ around the world, with papers exploring the impact of radical social movements on Germany, Lebanon, Italy, France, Denmark, China, Brazil and the United States. The panels were broadly subdivided into the following subject-areas: student movements; art; performance; media and memory; gender and sexuality; and intellectual histories of resistance. Rather, this report will focus on the mobilisation of audiovisual media across the different strands of the event, reflecting on their functions in mediating between activism and historiography.

For one, audiovisual media were deployed as a polyphonous source in parallel to the individual oral accounts, rather than the central concern. The symposium opened with the screening of an episode of the Granada Television current affairs programme World in Action, titled The Demonstration. Originally broadcast on 18th March 1968, it documented the anti-Vietnam War demonstration that assembled in Trafalgar Square and marched on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. Screened with the intention of setting a tone or atmosphere for the proceeding day of talks, it also briefly featured activist Tariq Ali addressing the crowd in ‘solidarity with the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front.’ In what would become a recurring feature of the whole event, audiovisual media momentarily bridged the temporal and discursive gap between lived and mediated accounts of the period. Following the screening, Ali took to the stage to present a wide-ranging sketch of some of the major international events that took place in the long decade of struggles in which ‘1968’ emerged as a prominent political ‘high point’. Ali also reflected on the lessons that past movements might offer to current ones, positing the potential inspirations that movements like #MeToo might glean from past struggles.

One of the challenges raised by elevating first-person testimonies is that surviving figures inevitably become individual representatives of often fractured political and creative networks. Screenings of films and newsreel clips therefore counterbalanced the more partial spoken narratives delivered by individual activists and scholars from the period, showing images of collaborative political and creative practices and bringing together a multiplicity of dissenting voices. This was apparent in, for instance, a screening of The Hornsey Film (1970), a sixty-three-minute-long documentary collectively ‘made by members of Hornsey College of Art’. Directed by Patricia Holland, who worked as a film editor for television during the 1960s, it involved the live-action reconstruction – performed by many of the original participants – of many of the events and arguments that informed the students’ occupation of the art college in June and July, 1968. In her keynote, Holland reflected on the collaborative nature of the film-making process and its non-hierarchical dispersal of authority, describing how participants were involved in key decision-making. The protest was prominent for mobilising mass communication methods, such as the printing press, to circulate and publicise students’ demands and concerns about the changing nature of art pedagogy. This formed part of the film’s reflexive strategies, which – as Holland highlighted in her talk – posed questions about the very possibility of making a film about student protest; the final film, she noted, interrogated the process of its construction.

Film also functioned in the symposium as an exemplar of collaborative practice, capable of generating and informing, rather than simply documenting, social movements. A program of films by the American militant film-making collective Newsreel, held at the BFI, highlighted what David E. James has described as the group’s subordination of film as ‘artifact to the debate that could be generated around it.’6David E. James, “‘The Movies Are a Revolution’: Film and the Counterculture”, in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, ed. by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 296. The films screened, Columbia Revolt (1968), The Case Against Lincoln Center (1968) and America, aka Amerika (1969), demonstrated how Newsreel’s work in this period shifted beyond the realm of protest reportage and into political praxis. As James has noted, these films constituted both documentations of radical activities, and radical political interventions.7Ibid., 293-294. In fact, Newsreel’s strategy of screening films in conjunction with political debates—a dialogic strategy that founding member Allan Siegel movingly evoked in a Q&A with Mark Shiel—was echoed in how the symposium placed film within the broader discursive framework of global protest movements.

Film and other audio-visual media also provided a common focal point that could be shared by all delegates, regardless of age, background and discipline. In a recent post on the History Workshop website, Ian Gwinn reflects on the role that popular culture might play in mediating cultural memory with regards to 1968. Gwinn suggests that, though rarely successful as a coherent ‘transmitter’ of political ideas and beliefs, popular cultural forms have the potential to make marginalised practices and experiences available to new generations ‘by embodying them in common media and means of expression which speak to particular social experiences and feelings in the present, even in inarticulate fashion—embodying everyday hopes and desires, imaginings of the future, longings for the past, and a sense of possibility and alternatives.’

The Historiohappening

The capacity for audiovisual media to deconstruct the ostensible divide between living and historicising 1968 became most evident during the events on Saturday night and the panel on ‘Film and TV’ the following morning, in which the ostensible dialectic of life and academia was reframed as a dialogue. After a break for dinner on Saturday, the delegates assembled in a room at the top of the building for a psychedelic evening, which gradually shifted from ‘historiophoty’ to what might be thought of as a ‘historiohappening’. By most accounts, alcohol was one of the least important psychoactive substances to the late 1960s counterculture, but the law and social proprieties of academia dictated that wine and beer, rather than doctored Kool Aid, were served by Kings College catering. The evening’s psychedelia, then, emerged from non-drug sources: through spatial and social relocation; as a theme raised in the introductory talk; from the musical accompaniment; and from a projection-induced derangement of the senses.

The room used for the evening lacked the typical spatial division between proscenium and audience that marked the conference’s keynotes and panels. The arrangement of the room was informal, with chairs around small tables, so that delegates could co-mingle, converse, drink and relax, establishing a dynamic appropriate to the evening’s gradual movement towards an altered sense of space, time and discourse. The conference organisers had to struggle with a malfunctioning digital projector, but the spectacle of academics improvising by climbing on a table to reach the projector appropriately evoked both the way many 1960s light show outfits would make the apparatus visible and the interruptions they would sometimes encounter owing to technical problems, such as broken slides. As in many 1960s happenings, the sense of a precisely timed beginning to a seamless performance evaporated.

Once the projector was fixed, Sophia Satchell-Baeza introduced the three main elements of the event: a screening of Anthony Stern’s film San Francisco, shot in 1967, but completed in 1968; multiple projections by the Bardo Light Show outfit, incorporating both digital slides influenced by 1960s light show aesthetics and original analogue wet-plates from the decade’s light shows; and the Mount Analogue Lucia No. 3 hypnagogic light machine.8The machine was invented by two Austrian scientists, Dirk Proeckl and Engelbert Winkler, and operated at the conference by Mat Harvey of UK distributor Mount Analogue.

San Francisco (Anthony Stern, 1968)

Her introduction provided a short overview of the history of liquid light shows and their place in 1960s psychedelic culture and a brief description of how the Lucia No. 3’s stroboscopic light patterns, experienced through closed eyes, stimulate eidetic imagery and have been utilised successfully in neurology and psychotherapy. It also delineated Anthony Stern’s background as a professional cameraman, photographer and sound recordist, his work as assistant on Peter Whitehead’s mid-1960s experimental films, and the way San Francisco’s psychedelic aesthetics related to countercultural contexts.

Stern, who was present for the beginning of the evening, has described his ‘divergence’ from the concerted political emphasis of Whitehead’s film style, towards a ‘much more romantic’ approach. Stern’s movement away from Whitehead’s approach might seem to echo the much-remarked-upon, ostensible split in the UK counterculture into two camps circa 1968: those committed to catalysing political change through revolutionary activism and those still preoccupied with social change via the personal transformations engendered by ‘hippy’ psychedelia. But Stern also asserts that his approach had its own political impetus: a timely reminder that psychedelic culture, whether art and film, or hippy lifestyle and drugs, was often driven by radical agendas and produced political effects, even if some, though not all, practices were removed from the more overt and pointed agitation of protests, occupations and demonstrations. Indeed, in striving playfully for what Stern called ‘an impression of visual chaos’, San Francisco also incorporates dynamic images of outdoor protests. Rather than containing this in-frame ferment in legible and recollectable narrative episodes, the film heightens the imagery’s centrifugal energy through rapid montage and, on its soundtrack, the improvised swerves of Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Its elusive montage, coupled with the music’s associations with altered states of consciousness, encourages viewers to become more aware of the cognitive processes involved in film viewing, especially the role of memory in orientating spectatorship. The screening offered up the film both as a countercultural document from 1968 and as a provocative eruption of a poetics of tumult into the neoliberal environment of the university.

The coupling of San Francisco with a light show emphasised many traits shared by films like Stern’s and live psychedelic projections, particularly rapidly shifting imagery and the potential to transform place/space. The Bardo Light Show’s multiple projections broke away from the monocularity of the single screen, expanding and dividing focal points across the walls and ceiling and transforming white plaster into psychedelic windows: delegates were drawn away from seated spectatorship, and strolled around the room, attracted first by one projection and then distracted by another. There was a sense, too, of the breakdown of artificial divisions between witness-participants from the 1960s and academic historians, as both kinds of delegates mixed amidst the sea of images. As well as reproducing the fluctuating abstract imagery of 1960s light shows, the slides invoked the special effects used in the hallucination sequences in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) through fleeting images of Jungian archetypes. The use of original ‘wet-slides’ also enabled delegates to experience the way analogue 1960s light shows constituted a form of live animation. The accompanying music combined tracks from the Nuggets compilation and by The Last Poets, bringing the sounds of (predominantly white) garage and black ghetto into the composite aesthetic space created by the projections. The overall effect was to encourage both historiographical thinking about various late-1960s aesthetic tendencies and an immersion in the moment of the projections.

The evening’s ‘entourage’ psychedelic effects took delegates far away from the neoliberal environments and the rigours and rationalised debates of conference presentations and conversations, but in so doing enabled forms of engagement with the aesthetic and social histories of 1968 that are inaccessible to more conventional conference activities. These forms of engagement were audiovisual, but also interpersonal, social, somatic and cerebral. If, as White argues, historiophoty offers much that written history cannot, then ‘historiohappenings’ like this provide an invaluable means of exploring history in a way that is phenomenological rather than rationalised, and yet no less empirical than historiography can be.

The ‘Film and TV’ Panel

Reintegration is an essential activity after psychedelic experiences and, in that spirit, the following morning’s panel on ‘Film and TV’ resituated the evening’s concern with the relationships between countercultural aesthetics, social experience and subjectivity in a more conventional setting and form. The panel’s unifying thread was the shared concern with connections between experimentation with film form and reflections on social and subjective revolutionism.

Subjektitüde (Helke Sander, 1966)

Christina Gerhardt’s paper ‘Helke Sander’s dffb Films and West Germany’s Feminist Movement’ discussed Sander’s Subjektitüde (1966), Children are not Cattle (1969/1970) and A Reward for Irene (1971). Through these case studies, Gerhardt repositioned Sander’s filmmaking in three ways: first, by highlighting the significance of Sander’s early work during and after her student years to the stylistic experimentation and politics of her better-known later work; second, by positing her early output as an example of pioneering feminist filmmaking in West Germany in the late 1960s; and third, by arguing that second-wave feminism in West Germany therefore emerged before the 1970s. The paper traced the parallelism between Sander’s development of a film aesthetic and her feminist activism. In another of the conference’s encounters between oral history and third-person scholarship, Sander herself was present in the audience and lent personal testimony that supported Gerhardt’s thesis.

Hugo Fagandini presented on ‘“Mama Düül und ihre Sauerkrautband steht auf”: revolt, revolution and rock music in Fassbinder’s The Niklashousen Journey’. Like Gerhardt, Fagandini shed new light on early, lesser known work by a lauded director: an essay film, The Niklashausen Journey (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970) explores, in the director’s words, ‘how and why a revolution fails.’ Fagandini considered this preoccupation in relation to the film’s dual historical focus, which yokes together the aborted 1476 peasant revolt inspired by Hans Böhm and the agitational politics of late 1960s West Germany; the film problematises the chrononormativity of historical and period storytelling through, for example, its mixture of token historical costumes and modern garb, and its incorporation of a gig by psychedelic rock band Amon Düül II. Fagandini gestured towards Fassbinder’s self-conscious commentary on both ‘revolutionary’ aesthetics, including those of Godard’s Weekend (1967), and the techniques of West German protest groups and militants that Fassbinder regarded as ‘self-defeating’.

The Niklashousen Journey (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970)

These two strands come together in the screened scene featuring Amon Düül II: the band’s performance is presented by the film as an example of experimental rock music and as an embodied allusion to countercultural lifestyles, especially the commune movement from which the band emerged. There is little distance in the scene between the musicians and the characters, who fill the spaces between the band members. The scene thus seems a response to the spacious formalism of Godard’s representation of The Rolling Stones in One Plus One (1968). In a mobile long take, the camera reinforces the unity of the space, yet displays isolating close-ups and mid-shots that contrast the performing band with the largely supine audience. As Fagandini argued, the film suggests that the ‘political and social movement’ epitomised by Amon Düül II was as ‘unable as Böhm’s peasants to translate revolutionary potential into revolutionary reality.’

Historical time and popular culture are also themes in the cyclical-narrative films compared by Martin Hall in his paper ‘Come Together or Fall Apart? 1968 and the Dialectics of Freedom in Herostratus and Performance’. Hall brought together an under-researched film, Herostratus (Don Levy, 1967), and Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg), which is well known, but still attracts original research and insightful analysis. Hall cast new light on the concerns the films share, including revolutionised subjectivity, 1960s countercultural discourses of liberation and London’s popular media: advertising in Herostratus, the press and rock music in Performance, though both are also, as Hall remarked, ‘consciously filmic films’.

Conclusion

The approaches to audio-visual media as history briefly outlined earlier in this report owe much to the shifts and developments in approaching historiography during the long 1960s. These might include the rise of social history, the shift away from (or, for the New Left, a renegotiation of) Beardian narratives, Hayden White’s movement towards a ‘linguistic turn’ and the rise of reflexive historiography, to name a few. If Film Studies’ main emphases during the 1960s rested on developing biocritical analyses of the oeuvres of ‘auteurs’ and, later, the application of semiology and structuralism to critical interpretation, much of the field subsequently drew in some measure on, and contributed to, these and other developments in historiography. Indeed, the methodologies adopted by the scholars on the ‘Film and TV’ panel would not have been possible without some of the influential transitions in historiography that took place during the long 1960s. The panel and many of the other academic papers delivered at the conference, then, could themselves be considered among the legacies of the long 1968 or the decade at large. Furthermore, many of the ‘68 activists have gone on to change the university discourse, albeit in a more compromised way, from within. Life might not often be an academic exercise, but it’s also true that academic exercises are a form of life, and – at this conference – the exercises extended the legacies of the period under examination. While the symposium and a prior workshop at King’s College addressed the impact of 1968 on education, its impact on the historiography practised at these events was neglected. A salutary follow-up event—whether at Kings College or elsewhere—could address this through a metahistorical debate about the period.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Marianne DeKoven, Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), x.
2. Workshops and screenings were held at King’s College and the British Film Institute (BFI) throughout May and June 2018. King’s College also hosted a series of six workshops, focusing on the impact of radical politics and social movements in 1968 on various disciplines and interest areas, including: cinema; popular music; urbanism; technology; psychiatry and institutional critiques of medicine; and education. An adjacent postgraduate conference, titled Women in the Wake of May 68, focused on the impact of May 1968 on French women in the period.
3. Exceptions included keynote talks by political historian Gerd-Rainer Horn and political historian, writer, and activist Tariq Ali, both of whom presented historical overviews of the density of national and international struggles and insurrections in the period; whereas the keynotes by moving-image scholars David E. James and Sylvia Harvey focused, respectively, on the radical American film collective Newsreel and on the legacies of 1968 in British independent filmmaking and television up to the inception of Channel 4.
4. Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, vol. 93, no. 5 (1988): 1193-1199.
5. The eight panels emphasised the global diversity of ‘1968s’ around the world, with papers exploring the impact of radical social movements on Germany, Lebanon, Italy, France, Denmark, China, Brazil and the United States. The panels were broadly subdivided into the following subject-areas: student movements; art; performance; media and memory; gender and sexuality; and intellectual histories of resistance.
6. David E. James, “‘The Movies Are a Revolution’: Film and the Counterculture”, in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, ed. by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 296.
7. Ibid., 293-294.
8. The machine was invented by two Austrian scientists, Dirk Proeckl and Engelbert Winkler, and operated at the conference by Mat Harvey of UK distributor Mount Analogue.

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