Letter to Helene Schwarz (DFFB), 1984

Skip Norman

Skip Norman’s contribution to DFFB “volljährig” (DFFB “adult”) is one of the longer and more comprehensive entries in the publication. Apart from a detailed filmography and his answers to the survey, he also sent a letter to Helene Schwarz, the secretary who had been at DFFB since the school’s beginnings and was an important confidante for many of the students.

Dear Frau Schwarz,

I would really love to see you now. It has been nine years since I left Berlin and I miss Berlin and my friends very much. My development has not been at a standstill since then. As you will notice in my Vitae (pp. 5—7) I have been involved in making films. I have also become a Scholar. I received a MA degree in 1979 and a PhD in 1984. My special area of academic and professional concern is ethnography. Ethnography is the study of culture. I will combine my experience in documentary filmmaking with my research skills as a scholar to produce ethnographic films. These films will not only advocate better socio-economic conditions for the subjects of the films but they will throw light on the cultural, social and psychological strengths of the people being documented from their point of view. The ethnographic film extends the concerns of the filmmaker beyond the political-economic into the social-psychological. Of course the ethnographic film is far more complicated than I have outlined here because it is based on the premise of developing a methodology that will minimize the biases and ethnocentric perspectives of the filmmaker. I would love to be invited to teach a course in ethnographic filmmaking and photography, so that your students can learn that filmmaking can go beyond the boundaries of the feature (narrative) film and the documentary (advocacy) film into such areas as Visual anthropology, Visual sociology, and Visual ethnography. Filmmaking skills can be used to record, document and study society. The Visual study of society through the study of culture should be seriously considered as an area of film training for future social scientists, i.e., anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and humanitarians.

I didn’t intend to give a discourse, although brief, on my enthusiasm for bringing film closer to the lives of real people. That is to say, people as they see themselves and not as they are interpreted by film intellectuals.

I intend to send DFFB a copy of my dissertation for the library as soon as it is available. In the meantime, let me extend my heartfelt greetings to you all and reiterate that it would be a pleasure to teach the principles of Visual ethnography and the Visual study of culture. Please give Heinz Rathsack my warmest greetings. One of my doctoral teachers is his friend and international colleague (Robert W. Wagner).

Shoot of <em>Migrant Family</em>, dir.: Homero de la Cruz” /></p>
<p><span class=Shoot of Migrant Family, dir.: Homero de la Cruz

The enclosed picture was taken during the shoot of what will be an important documentary film on Mexican American Migrant farm workers in this country. The Mexican American Migrant farmworkers are the ‘Gastarbeiter’ of America. We are hoping to have the film entered in the 1985 festival program in West Berlin. But that depends on how much money can be generated for the post-production work.

Enclosed you will find my curriculum vitae, a set of answers to your questions (I didn’t answer the questions that implied experience in a German setting), a photograph and a copy of a newsletter that is published by an independent film production Organization in Columbus, Ohio.

Take care and please inform me of the time and place of the twentieth anniversary of class “66”.

Mit sehr herzlichen Grüßen

Skip Norman


Source: DFFB “volljährig”. Absolventen-Info 1984, Redaktion: Malte Ludin, Berlin: dffb 1984, p. 67. Image: ibid.

[Suggested citation: Skip Norman, “Letter to Helene Schwarz,” Rosa Mercedes 03/A (January 2021), www.harun-farocki-institut.org/en/2021/01/28/letter-to-helene-schwarz-dffb-1984/]

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January 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / A

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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