Editorial: Skip Norman. Filmmaker, Cinematographer, Visual Anthropologist, Teacher

In March 2018, we screened five films directed by Wilbert Reuben “Skip” Norman (1933–2015). We knew little about him and his work. Some of us had seen Blues People, which is available online; others were familiar with the essays and documents about Skip Norman’s work on the website dffb-archiv.de which was established when the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB) turned fifty in 2016. We were also aware that Skip Norman was a prolific cinematographer at the school—he had belonged to the first cohort of students in 1966, just like Helke Sander, Johannes Beringer, Hartmut Bitomsky, Günter Peter Straschek, Holger Meins, Gerd Conradt, and Harun Farocki. In 1968, he worked as a cameraman for Farocki’s student shorts White Christmas and Their Newspapers. Together with Farocki, he was also part of the team for Helke Sander’s Break the Power of the Manipulators.

Watching the five films, which can be found in the archives of Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek and Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in the company of an engaged audience made a strong impression on us. Three of the films—Blues People, Cultural Nationalism, and his diploma film Strange Fruit—were made in West Berlin, the other two—Washington D.C. November 1970 and Blackman’s Voluntary Army of Liberation—in the USA. All of them are concerned with negotiating contemporary and historic oppression and discrimination, addressing Black Power politics, and confronting the violence of the US war in Vietnam. They also reflect the diasporic situation of an African American filmmaker living and working in West Berlin.

We formed a small, informal group: Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe, Madeleine Bernstorff, Brigitta Kuster, Doreen Mende, Tom Holert, Elsa de Seynes, and Volker Pantenburg. Later, Pascal Maslon joined us. We wanted to know more. A project was born, and the Archive außer sich context offered the framework for us to pursue it. Once we started to do research, it became clear that there was a lot to learn and to share.

Skip Norman, born 1933 in Baltimore, came to Germany in the early 1960s, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement in the US was gaining momentum. Before enrolling at the DFFB, he studied medicine and then German Studies in Göttingen. In the mid 1970s, he went back to the USA to study at the Ohio State University, starting with a BA, then continuing to do an MA and an interdisciplinary PhD in anthropology, sociology, photography, and cinema. Photography and visual anthropology became the focus of his research, both in his own work and his teaching, which he continued between 1996 and 2006 as Associate Professor at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus.

But let’s not rush things. We are only at the beginning of our learning process, and the upcoming parts of Rosa Mercedes, to be released every two months, will be one of the places to share it.

January 2021


Imprint: Rosa Mercedes 03/A, “Skip Norman: Filmmaker, Cinematographer, Visual Anthropologist, Teacher”

Editor: Harun Farocki Institut

Thanks to Skip Norman’s family, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Ingrid Oppermann, Gerd Conradt, and Johannes Beringer.

Rosa Mercedes 03 is presented by the Harun Farocki Institut in cooperation with the German Film Office, an initiative of the Goethe-Institut and German Films. It is published in the context of Archive außer sich, a project of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art within the cooperation The Whole Life: An Archive Project, together with Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Pina Bausch Foundation and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Archive außer sich is part of HKW’s project The New Alphabet, supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media due to a ruling of the German Bundestag.

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January 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk:  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020
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