Skip, Take a Picture, Record It!

Helke Sander

I met Skip Norman in film school. We were both in the dffb’s very first class in 1966. Right away, he was camera assistant on my first two films, on Silvo (1966) and also on Subjektitüde (1966–67). So we had already shot together in 1966 because we all helped each other out. That’s how the training was at the time.

The first thing I remember is the experience that made it onto the cover of Frauen und Film issue 5. It was 1975. The Federal Constitutional Court had overturned the law permitting an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy.1 There was a demonstration at the Gedächtniskirche where flyers were being handed out on whose masthead stood Alexandra Kollontai, Frauenstraße 1 in Kreuzberg. I was there filming with one of the first video cameras, which I had borrowed from Michael Geißler. But I had already put it away because the protest was not particularly interesting. But then the fire department came because the demonstrators threw a bucket of red paint on the steps of the Gedächtniskirche. A fire fighter dipped his forefinger in the red paint, which was still wet, and sniffed it. I don’t know if he tasted it too. I ran to the car and grabbed my equipment again. A lot of people were watching who were kind of there for the thrill. One of the firemen—meanwhile, the police had also arrived—wiped up the paint, which had spread out a little bit more. It was all rather strange. There were flyers lying everywhere. In any case, the police came over to me and arrested me, as the leader. Just then, I saw Skip watching from the crowd. I shouted: “Skip, take a picture, record it!” Because he always had a few still cameras hanging around his neck. He did that and then they arrested him right away too. We were only able to talk for about two minutes. He said he had just come from America and gotten off at Bahnhof Zoo and took a walk around the block to get used to the place and then stuck around this crowd of people. It was already a very unusual situation, I had not seen him in several years. We were both taken to the police station behind Bahnhof Zoo and were locked up in different cells there. It took insanely long, a few hours, before I could call a lawyer. But the people standing around at the Gedächtniskirche who had witnessed everything had gotten upset that we were arrested and immediately organized a demonstration to the police station. This was initiated by a CDU party member. Later on, the lawyer Nikola Becker got us released. The whole story went on and on because the unions got involved and it led to a small inquiry in the Bundestag from FDP party members Gerhart Baum and Burkhard Hirsch. In the end, the trial turned out like this: Because I was not a regular employee at the SFB or another radio station or newspaper, but freelance, it meant I was filming as a hobby and the police therefore had the right to confiscate the tapes. I never got the half-inch videotapes back.

Skip Norman had already left before the trial started. The trial was against—in alphabetical order—Alexandra Kollontai, who they spent a long time looking for. Then the lawyer Schily pointed out to them that she had been buried for this or that many years at the Kremlin Wall. The whole thing fell to pieces because everything on the flyer was fake. On the masthead was Frauenstraße 1 in Kreuzberg, where Alexandra Kollontai supposedly lived, but that didn’t exist either.

I had a similar formative experience with Skip. It was in 1967 during the Six Days War. Enzio Edschmid, Skip and I were sitting in the café near the film school on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. We were discussing Israel and the war and all kinds of other things. Then Skip suddenly said that we shouldn’t say “Nxxxx”2 anymore. It would be considered discriminatory. Enzio and I objected: “Why not?” We didn’t use the discriminatory nxxxx. Skip said that the Black Panthers now want to enforce that we say “Schwarz” (black) instead. We were grumbling a bit. But since Skip was our friend, we promised him we would only call him and others “Schwarze” if it ever became necessary at all.

In my film Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure (1968), Skip reads a long, off-screen text by Frantz Fanon, from the cameraman’s position. I found it was a little too long but also thought that he should really have his say. He was adamant the passage be included.

He was very cooperative. We could always talk about everything. It was a sign of the times that we discussed a tremendous amount and you were allowed to have different opinions. And we got closer that way.

I especially like Skip’s short 16mm film with the white screen: Cultural Nationalism (1969). He made it for the Black Panthers. They wanted a political film from him, and in my opinion, it really is one. However, an important Black Panther Group in Copenhagen didn’t know what to make of it, they had something entirely different in mind. More militant. Not a dot—which could also be mistaken for a somewhat damaged screen—that grows bigger and bigger over ten minutes until it can be recognized as a black kid in the snow, looking at the camera and walking by. It’s my favorite film of his. I’m also very fond of the camera movements in his very first film with the couple: Riffi (1966).

From a conversation with Madeleine Bernstorff, March 16, 2021

 

Helke Sander studied at dffb together with Skip Norman. She joined the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (Socialist German Students, SDS) in 1967, and in 1968 co-founded “Action Council for Women’s Liberation.” Sander initiated the movement for anti-authoritarian children’s nurseries, the “First International Women’s Film Meeting” (1973) with Claudia von Alemann, as well as the film magazine Frauen und Film (1974). Her groundbreaking film The All-Round Reduced Personality – Redupers was shot in 1977. She was a professor for Film at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and is an author alongside her filmmaking work.

Translated by Ted Fendt. German version available as a PDF.

Footnotes

1 Editor’s note: Also called Fristenlösung: in 1974, following a bill proposed by the SPD and FDP concerning abortion, the Bundestag voted for the model of a so-called Fristenlösung allowing an abortion to be approved within the first three months of a pregnancy. Federal states where the CDU and CSU held office brought a lawsuit to the supreme court intended to declare the Fristenlösung unconstitutional. In 1975, the court voted in favor of this opinion. 1

2 Editor’s note: Helke Sander prefers that the N-word is written out. She has nevertheless agreed to this published version. 2

Image: Frauen und Film 5, 1974 © Brigitte Tast

[Suggested citation: Helke Sander, “Skip, Take a Picture, Record It!” Rosa Mercedes 03/B (April 2021), www.harun-farocki-institut.org/en/2021/04/30/skip-take-a-picture/]

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April 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / B
Interface

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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