Livestreaming the Revolution

A camera is a vehicle for truth—but is the truth enough to set us free?

by Safy-Hallan Farah
Jun 9 2020, 12:00pm

I wasn’t sure what compelled me to start screen recording Instagram livestreams in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but it felt instinctive, like a fight-or-flight reflex, as a choice to document one’s reality often does. Maybe it’s the same reason that a 15-year-old white girl would feel moved to record a TikTok of herself crying about her parents’ racism, highlighting a generational rift between the zoomers and their parents. Or perhaps it's similar to K-pop stans spamming police departments with fancams and drowning out the voices of racists on Twitter. The impulse to document, to archive, is rooted in a desire to bring permanence to moments that were once regarded as ephemeral.

Until quite recently, video recordings and livestreams were mostly the province of celebrities, but in the past few years they’ve become a lifeline for black people. Citizen cell phone recordings of police murders and livestreamed dispatches from protests—or CCTV surveillance and bodycam footage weaponized against the state—stir empathy in viewers, often vicariously traumatizing them in the process. But this empathy, that we have seen this past week, is a potent force for social and political change.

In the summer of 2016, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, the Minnesota mother who livestreamed the murder of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, is an apt example of the livestream at its most powerful. Reynold’s 10-minute recording was, as Doreen St. Felix wrote at the time, an example of “citizen journalism, sousveillance of the police.” Castile can be seen writhing in agony, crying while he bleeds out in the driver’s seat. Reynold narrates the experience to her friends, followers, and the larger world, as she witnesses her boyfriend die in front of her and her daughter. On May 25, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier’s shot a single take on an iPhone of black Minnesota resident George Floyd being slowly suffocated in broad daylight by officer Derek Chauvin. Her decision, like Reynolds, to document incited the current civil unrest in Minnesota and triggered a nationwide upheaval.

In the last week, it’s become more evident that even with the recorded proof of violence against black citizens—both of police officers' murders and their antagonization of peaceful protesters—politicians, the police, and much of the general public will still engage in systematic denial. Visible, tangible proof isn’t enough, and the collective reckoning with that knowledge has resulted in a nationwide outcry the likes of which we haven’t seen since the civil rights movement, and the violent protests that led to the end of the apartheid in South Africa.


In the last few years, our understanding of livestreaming has been largely informed by celebrity experimentation with the format. Katy Perry did normal life activities like playing with her dogs, going to therapy, and eating in Katy Perry Life: Witness World Wide, and Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding had sex with Chad Johnson, alienating her housemates and the general public in Celebrity Big Brother (British series 20 in 2017, the only one I've personally watched), and, more recently, Instagram-broadcasted QuestLove DJ sets, the Verzuz series, which introduced a battle format to the livestream, pitting the likes of Nelly and Ludacris against each other for fans at home. In one of the more memorable instances, in 2017, Shia LaBeouf debuted a livestream project called He Will Not Divide Us, in which LaBeouf and his collaborators Nastja Rönkkö, and Luke Turner ambitiously set out to record their every move for the duration of Donald Trump's presidency. (Ultimately they had to stop due to safety concerns.) Every day, LaBeouf reported to a set for his internet audience at home. The public was asked to "deliver the words 'He will not divide us' into a camera mounted on the wall of The Museum of the Moving Image" in Astoria, Queens. Participants performed the request, but often veered "off script:" loitering in silence, shouting out the social media pages of friends and family, roasting Trump, dancing, singing, self-promoting, and performing activities that ranged from the spectacle-rousing to the mundane.

LaBeouf's livestream installation reminded us that a camera recording daily life in real time will not fail to capture revelatory and unexpectedly chaotic material—and it is arguably in this fact that the public fascination with it was rooted. There’s a surprising richness and texture to the mundanity of reality-TV-like entertainment. LaBeouf may not have intended to entertain or inform, but he started a conversation, which does both. For the on-camera public participants, it was not unlike a live, unedited reality television show providing unfiltered, continuous surveillance footage 24 hours a day, like CSPAN on crack, or if Big Brother wasn’t whittled down to TV-length episodes.

David Foster Wallace, in his essay on scripted television, E Unibus Plurum (written before the advent of reality TV), describes television as an illusory medium that promotes judgmental impressions over empathy. “Illusions of voyeurism and privileged access require real complicity from viewers,” he writes. In other words, the people we’re watching through screens are not unaware that we’re watching them, that there’s a tacit contract between watcher and watched. The watched are “in'' on their performance in a way that confounds realism and implicates them as accomplices in their own othering. “Television does not afford true espial,” Wallace argues, “because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers.”


When consuming television, both scripted and reality, it’s compulsory to suspend our disbelief, but what livestreams have taught us is that the watched can exist as unwatched and natural. The subject or subjects of these videos also become conduits of empathy for the watchers, who are usually viewing these images alone, on their phones, especially now, when most people are quarantined. The vulnerability and embarrassment usually baked into public viewership, whether in the theater or a night of Netflix and chilling, is almost eliminated at our present moment. Researchers and commentators have theorized that social distance is impersonal—behind everything from a lack of empathy to toxic parasocial relationships—but this phenomenon, one could argue, has also allowed for powerful empathic transference, a galvanizing force behind political resistance.

Videos and images tend to become washed-up simulacrum: a screenshot of a screenshot, distorted across various online channels of communication. But while the integrity of the original artifact gets corrupted, the truth it contains remains untouched. The work of preserving this content is fraught with aesthetic concerns, in addition to the surfeit of ethical ones. As a black person who lives 12 blocks away from where George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, I find myself, turning on my phone to document what’s happening around me.

I know, as you do, that every citizen is now a performer, every video is a film, and every person watching at home is a witness. Edited, anodyne representations of the world have been replaced with raw footage, forcing a generation to bear witness to the truth: that black lives do matter. These films have ushered us to this moment of revolution.

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