Form, Audience, Recognition: Transmediality and the Affects of Witnessing

Deborah A. Thomas
(University of Pennsylvania)

Since 2012, I have been working collaboratively with Junior Wedderburn and Deanne Bell on a multi-modal and multi-­dimensional project titled Tivoli Stories, which addresses the 2010 state of emergency in West Kingston, Jamaica. During the “Tivoli Incursion,” as the state of emergency has come to be called, security forces went into Tivoli Gardens in order to capture Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who had been ordered for extradition to the United States. Officially, seventy-four civilians were killed during this operation, but the number community members give is closer to two hundred. We have been assembling archives—including drone footage, archival footage, still and moving images of the contemporary landscape, still and video portraiture, and narratives. We have been interested in how these assemblages bring into being a range of affective orientations, themselves differently apprehended based on one’s location (politically, structurally, nationally, and psychically), and in what these affective orientations might do to and for audiences.

The intention of the project was not to showcase “trauma testimonies” of those community members who allowed us to record their narratives of the 2010 state of emergency. Instead, we wanted to develop a dynamic affective space in which the trauma of exceptional violence was deeply contextualized at many levels of scale, and in which the entanglements among these levels of scale remained open and unresolved questions that challenged the closed narratives of previous accounts. When I write about our practice, I call it “Witnessing 2.0” (Thomas). This is not the kind of witnessing we might expect from a truth and reconciliation commission or a human rights tribunal. Witnessing 2.0 is instead an embodied moral practice that seeks to produce intimacies to forge the basis for a new ethical register that destabilizes the boundaries between self and other, knowing and feeling, complicity and accountability, by encouraging an attunement to and responsibility for the various ways we are implicated in the processes we witness.

Tivoli Stories generated an exhibit that opened at the Penn Museum in 2017, the 40-minute experimental documentary Four Days in May, and a 7:30-minute non-linear short film, and we are currently in discussions with the National Gallery of Jamaica to take a version of the exhibit there. This project has shape-shifted partly because of the kinds of materials we assembled. But it has also taken multiple forms due to the audiences we have sought to engage in different ways and toward different ends. While the 40-minute documentary, Four Days in May, speaks to a number of audiences, my feeling has been that its rightful audience is Jamaicans, because of what a familiarity with the events and the visual landscape can produce. Screening Four Days in May in festivals and on college campuses outside Jamaica where there is limited familiarity with local histories of political violence, I became disturbed that it was too easily being consumed as a “human rights film,” and that audiences seemed to be spending more time trying to understand what happened—the order of the events, the reasons for the responses, the geopolitical relations that would have caused them—than they were trying to understand what they were feeling from people on the screen. And despite the titling that I ultimately capitulated to including—titling that is really signposting rather than a word-for-word translation of Jamaican patois—several viewers became frustrated that they didn’t feel they understood what people were saying. I say this in this way because I have also shown the film to non-English, non-patois speakers in other areas of the world where anti-black state violence is normative, and these audiences have apprehended the film in profound ways beyond language. These experiences led me to want to experiment with another form, one that was non-narrative and non-linear, and one in which the sound (developed by Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn) did not correspond to the images. My sense was that this would potentially give viewers the freedom to abandon certain expectations of understanding in order to more fully immerse themselves in the affective relations of the visual and sonic landscapes.

Four Days in West Kingston, produced and directed by Deborah A. Thomas and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, we have been experimenting with how a series of screenings, moderated public discussions about political and other forms of violence, and community-based ritual interventions addressing social and economic development in Jamaica might offer an alternative to the policy-driven approaches that normally constitute intervention within the public sphere. To date, we have screened Four Days in May in community-based settings in the parishes of Kingston, St. Thomas, and Portland, as well as at the University of the West Indies-Mona Campus. Given the intense political polarizations in Jamaican society, we have screened in spaces where people are already accustomed to coming together across partisan political boundaries. These screenings have been followed by moderated community discussions during which people have talked about their own experiences of state violence, about the broader history of violence in Jamaica and the legacies of the Cold War and U.S. intervention, about the effects of the transnational trades in drugs and arms, about the psychological trauma influencing contemporary decision-making, about the impossibility of measuring the long-term impact of states of emergency that result in significant civilian death,  and about the extent to which they feel transformation is possible. What has been notable about these discussions is that when confronted with the narratives of people who directly experienced the violence of the state—narratives that detail both the quotidian and extraordinary ways violence has shaped their lives—audiences have reevaluated what they thought they understood about the events of May 2010. They have rethought their assumptions both about how political violence operates, and about the humanity of people who live in areas where it is rampant.

People who have seen both the 40-minute documentary and the experimental short have said that they feel the weight of the state more heavily in the longer version, and they feel the life people create, even in the face of this weight, in the short. This is to be expected, really, as the longer film features people narrating their experiences of snipers shooting at them while they cowered in their homes, of watching their sons being executed by soldiers in the garden next door, of being dragged from location to location, tied to other men, wondering if they were going to die. However, this difference also brings us to the question of the relationships between politics and ethics, and of how visual and sonic archives can mediate or reconfigure these relationships beyond the Western universals through which they have been formulated. By disturbing the normative frames through which crime and violence have been represented in Jamaica, and by offering an alternative to the policy-driven approaches that normally constitute intervention within the public sphere, we have been seeking to understand the potential impact of alternative research-based modalities on different sectors of the national community, and thus to limn an alternative route through which meaningful social transformation could occur.

In our visual work, we are able to proximately juxtapose divergent scales, perspectives, and times. We are also able to reflect and generate affective engagements through the production and editing decisions that are made, engagements that are sometimes difficult to capture or represent through text. Moreover, because these engagements are stubbornly both unpredictable and aspirational, our multi-modal work seeks willfully to accept this indeterminacy, while also attempting to awaken some sort of recognition of the domains in which we, as producers and consumers of events and their representations, are complicit. Working across multiple forms invokes the kinds of transmediation Christine Walley has written about. For Walley, using multiple media in ethnographic practice can offer new and potentially more diverse spaces for engagement as well as “possibilities for expanded dialogue in an increasingly unequal era” (624). Here, the term “transmedia” is coined not to evoke the use of multiple media platforms in research and dissemination, nor to highlight processes of adaptation from one media to another, but to extend “ethnographic narratives across media forms, with each component making a unique contribution to the whole” (624) in ways that might encourage more robust conversations about ethnography as process, relationship, and representation. It is these conversations we have sought to provoke with our work, and ultimately, I believe it is these conversations that can give us a sense of how, when, and why embodied freedom can actually counteract the constraints of historical violence-in-the-present, can help create the conditions of response-ability through real love, and can urge us to work through the complex entanglements of accountability in order to act reparatively, in concert, as humans.

Artist Approach
Film & Video
Reimagining the Archive


Thomas, Deborah A.. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Duke University Press, 2019.

Walley, Christine. “Transmedia as Experimental Ethnography: The Exit Zero Project, Deindustrialization, and the Politics of Nostalgia.” American Ethnologist vol. 42, no. 4, 2015, pp. 624–639.

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