Culture Capture: Redeeming the Rightful Past
Culture Capture: Terminal Addition is a visual dramatisation of Walter Benjamin’s idea of Messianic politics and the concept of history for the context of indigenous liberation. In Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin explores the significance of Messianic liberation of the past by the oppressed class in the Marxist class struggle during the pre- and post-Nazi occupation Europe in the twentieth century. On the other hand, the New Red Order (NRO) imagines how those concepts would apply today for American indigenous struggle, which is a subgroup of the oppressed class in the Marxist ideology, in their short documentary using various cinematic and symbolic techniques and direct references to Walter Benjamin’s text.
The film starts with a montage of news clips that describe the opposition to cultural monuments, which celebrate the victors of the European colonialism in America and ‘unconsciously inform our inability to comprehend our settler reality,’ as mere ‘vandalism’. The monuments depict indigenous people and Black Americans (the oppressed class) as inferior to the European colonialists (for example, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt is accompanied by an unnamed, horseless indigenous person and a Black American) and glorify the colonialists as well as the atrocities they committed as ‘redeemer of progression to the American land.’ The other side of the history, one of struggle, hardship and horror of indigenous peoples, is signified by splash of red paint that resemble blood on the statues by the activists. However, the news channels insist they are ‘not sure who did this, when they did this or why’ and try to distance the activism from the steal of land, freedom and heritage of Native Americans that is settler colonialism. In that way, the media is an agent of universal historicism that ‘empathises with the victor, [and] invariably benefits the current rulers,’ and ‘musters a mass of data to fill the homogenous, empty time,’ instead of looking at history as constructive, as explained by Walter Benjamin.
Among other ‘cultural treasuries’ which ‘owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period,’ statues are an especially explicit representation of victor’s narrative of history, for it is static and symbolic in a way that snapshots only a certain moment in time. While activists mentioned in the news clips try to transform the statues by adding a layer of blood, the NRO explores what those statues would look like if the statues were not static but dynamic and continuous while incorporating the idea of Messianic politics outlined by Walter Benjamin. He compares a historical materialist to an angel of history
…[whose] face turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay…and make whole that has been smashed, [but] a storm is blowing from Paradise…[driving] him irresistibly into the future…while the pile of debris before him grows towards the sky.
In other words, Walter Benjamin argues that the Marxist class struggle is not only a fight for a better future but also redemption and reaffirmation of the past against current ruling class indoctrination ‘that made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice.’ Therefore, a historical materialist should be ‘capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past and [one who is] firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if [the enemy] is victorious,’ he explains. But how would historical materialism look like in the age of technology, in the context of indigenous struggle?
The first visualisation of Walter Benjamin’s concept of history is expressed through a slideshow of archival images that resemble a continuum of history. At various points in the film, the slideshow of archival images shows the process of making the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York City. Combined with the non-diegetic sound of a film projector and a suspenseful background music, the montage of the slideshow reminds of a criminal investigation or a presentation for a court case, which in this context, gives the signal that none of the oppressive history of racial hierarchy and settler colonialism will be forgotten. During the slideshows, around 5 images appear in a second, which allows the viewer to barely recognise the images. It is a visual representation of Walter Benjamin’s description of the past as ‘the past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognisability and is never seen again.’ At the same time, it rejects the idea of history being a crystallised monad that fills ‘the homogenous, empty time’ but instead is constructive, interconnected and continuing by showing the archival images in continuum.
While the slideshow of archival images differentiates historical materialism from mainstream history, symbolisms of the statues and the people scanning them explore how Walter Benjamin’s idea of redemption of the past would look like today. In the film, people wearing a ghoulish mask over their heads painstakingly scan and capture the statues representing the European colonialism. It gives the impression that every detail of the monument will be captured (and remembered). At the same time, it is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s imagination of the angel of history, in which the angel wishes to ‘awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.’ This is highlighted by the anthropomorphism of a Native American’s statue shown at scene at 03:42, with the raindrops on the face making the statue look like it is crying for the brutal oppression of the indigenous people after the loss in the battle of colonialism. From that perspective, the ghoulish masks resemble the oppressed people of the past who awakened from death to redeem their rightful history and revitalise the current generation of indigenous people in the Marxist class struggle. The scanning of the statues is then turned into a 3D simulation, in which it immediately becomes a cancerous mass of object, implying that if the statues were in fact dynamic, they would look like ugly, disease-infected objects representative of the dark oppressive history of settler colonialism. By intensively focusing on the rather unsightly side of the statues, it pushes the viewers to realise these statues, which celebrate the triumphant victory over American land, are simultaneously one of barbarism. As a result, the spirit of the ancestors, the unwavering courage pass down onto the present oppressed class and precursor a Marxist revolution that is a Messiah of the past and the future.
The NRO’s artwork pushes us to confront the tragic past of indigenous struggle and revisit the concept of Messianic politics outlined by Walter Benjamin almost a century ago in the context of contemporary politics. The significance of this artwork is ever more relevant today as White nationalism takes its stronghold in the United States mainstream politics with authorities challenging the remaining land and heritage of the indigenous people for projects like oil pipes in the name of ‘progress.’ But how will the artistic politics translate into today’s politics? Will we be able to ‘save the ancestors’ from the colonial narrative in real life?
Benjamin, Walter. 2007. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin, 253–264. New York: Schocken Books.
2020. Culture Capture: Terminal Addition. Directed by New Red Order.
This essay was written as a coursework for UC Berkeley. Any sort of plagiarism will be strongly condemned.