Critical Art on Trial

Joan Hawkins / University of Indiana, Bloomington

CAEs Cult of the New Eve project

CAE’s Cult of the New Eve project

In Lost Subjects, Contested Objects, a slender and elegant volume on pedagogy and psychoanalytic theories of learning, Deborah Britzman makes the following observation: “artists ask imagine that communities are something to do, something to make. And with these… perhaps education can begin.” ((Deborah Britzman, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998) p. 60)) This certainly describes the artistic and pedagogical enterprise of the Critical Art Ensemble, a media and installation group whose founder is currently under indictment for cultural practices which the federal government originally linked to bioterrorism. Subsequently the charges were changed to mail fraud. Under the Patriot Act, prison sentences for mail fraud can extend to 20 years.

The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is “a collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.” ((See the Critical Art Ensemble website– The group formed in 1987. Their earliest media productions were what might be called “traditional” avant-garde art. That is to say they were made for people with a certain kind of cultural capital, who could easily get the references and enjoy the jokes. In the 1990s, CAE began engaging in direct political action, advocating what they called “digital disobedience.” They also wrote slim theoretical texts that simultaneously engaged ongoing debates in media theory and advocated a return to macropolitics. Electronic Disturbance (NY: Autonomedia, 1994) is perhaps the best known of these.

CAEs Flesh Machine project

CAE’s Flesh Machine project

Most recently, CAE has begun using media and real materials to blur the lines between art as largely symbolic provocation and art as a pedagogical tool designed to put information directly in the hands of the people. Organizing installations and theatrical events around such topics as bio-genetic modification of food, eugenics, and biological warfare, CAE has begun to see themselves as “tactical media practitioners” rather than as artists. ((It is interesting to note that while the CAE still views itself as a media group, they have received very little academic or critical attention from media scholars. To date, the best and most complete analysis of their work has appeared in drama journals. See particularly Rebecca Schneider’s articles in The Drama Review. The Drama Review articles are archived at They maintain a strong web presence, posting graphics and text from their already-mediated shows online. Their goal is to use media to make a radical intervention in the Spectacle.

Critical Art Ensemble installations look something like open science classrooms. There are art works on the walls and around the gallery, but the majority of space is taken up by computers and lab equipment. Members of the collective, dressed in white coats, lead visitors through scientific experiments with inert chemical compounds, encouraging them to get first hand knowledge of what happens to organisms under certain conditions. Computer stations provide textual information about the nature of various compounds and their effects on the human body and on the environment. Members of CAE are largely self-taught in science and part of their mission is to demystify science, to convince an increasingly befuddled public that science can be understood by educated lay people. They encourage citizens to make informed decisions about the biological and chemical substances which have become such a part of everyday life. This work has put the group at odds with large corporate interests. When CAE targeted a Monsanto product, RoundUp Ready Plants, in its exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallerywidth=350 in Washington D.C., and at the World Information Organization in Amsterdam, Monsanto obtained cease and desist orders. ((See Stephanie Kane and Pauline Greenhill, “A Feminist Perspective on Bioterror: From Anthrax to Critical Art Ensemble” Signs Volume 33, Number 1 (Autumn 2007) p. 60)) But, as Stephanie Kane and Pauline Greenhill note, until recently “CAE regarded the condemnations and threats from police, lawyers, churches, political figures, and the FBI as part of the rough-and-tumble of public reactions to provocative public art. Indeed, in the past CAE has been encouraged by critical dialogue. The charge of bioterrorism, however, shifts the terms of the debate.” (60).

CAEs GenTerra project

CAE’s GenTerra project

The Case

On May 11, 2004, Steve Kurtz phoned 911, after waking to find his wife—Hope Kurtz– unconscious in bed beside him. Ms. Kurtz had died in her sleep. But it was not only her death that worried the emergency aid team that came in response to Kurtz’s call, but also the laboratory equipment and inert biological compounds which Mr. Kurtz uses as part of his art work and which he had stored in his home. The 911 team phoned the FBI (this is where things get murky — because the group that actually came was the Joint Terrorist Task Force). Steve Kurtz was arrested on suspicion of bio-terrorism. Hope Kurtz’s body was impounded (which meant that it couldn’t be released for a funeral). Kurtz’s equipment, computer, art supplies, books, films and biological material were confiscated. The Joint Terrorist Task Force Agents also took Mr. Kurtz’s car, his house, and his cat.

Authorities searched Kurtz’s home and tested the biological material for two days, before declaring that there was no public health risk in Kurtz’s work and that no toxic material had been found. Kurtz was allowed to return to his home on May 17, his car and cat were released, and his wife’s death was attributed to heart failure. But while the case should have ended there, it was only beginning. In June, Kurtz and other members of the Critical Art Ensemble were brought before the Grand Jury and again investigated on the charge of bio-terrorism. Again it was found that there was no evidence that any members of the Critical Art Ensemble had been involved in bio-terrorism. Nonetheless, their case was referred to a Federal District Court and on July 8, 2004 the Federal District Court in Buffalo charged the Defendants with four counts of mail and wire fraud, charges connected with the purchase of the inert biological material used in their installation work. Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, the researcher who helped CAE procure the biological material, was similarly indicted. They were enjoined from performance, travel, or even speaking about the case. In addition, Mr. Kurtz has been subject to random visits from a probation officer and to periodic drug tests.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces

Joint Terrorism Task Forces searches Professor Steven Kurtz’s home

The art community has been understandably nervous about the chilling effect of the case and has rallied to Mr. Kurtz’s defense. But the scientific community, too, has been disturbed. A guilty verdict against Mr. Kurtz could have serious implications for scientists who wish to share research—including inert compounds—with colleagues.

Space does not permit a full account of the history of the case to date. The Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund website has excellent coverage for people who wish to know more about the judicial status of Dr. Ferrell and Mr. Kurtz. And Lynn Hershman Leeson’s award winning film about the case, Strange Culture (2007) is a good resource and help (Leeson is donating money from DVD purchases and rentals to the CAE defense fund). As Britzman notes in the quote I cited at the beginning of this column, artists ask us to imagine that “communities are something to do, something to make.” What those of us following the case are wondering now is precisely what kinds of communities—real or virtual—we will be able to make once the CAE case is decided.


The two paragraphs describing the case originally appeared as part of a longer article on the Critical Art Ensemble. See Hawkins, “When Taste Politics Meet Terror: The Critical Art Ensemble on Trial.” Published by CTheory June 14, 2005. Archived at

I owe special thanks to CTheory, Marlene Costa, Skip Hawkins, Stephanie Kane, and Steve Kurtz.

Image Credits:
1. CAE’s Cult of the New Eve project
2. CAE’s Flesh Machine project
3. CAE’s GenTerra project
4. Joint Terrorism Task Forces searches Professor Steven Kurtz’s home

Please feel free to comment.

Screen Memories: The Pioneers of Television

When I was a kid, January routinely saw the appearance of a seasonal television announcement, reminding nonimmigrant aliens to register their addresses with the U.S. government. Failure to do so could result in immediate expulsion from the country. I didn’t know what “aliens” meant—other than creatures that turned up with great regularity on The Twilight Zone. And I would have been amazed to learn that half of my neighbors and many of my friends met the government criteria for nonimmigrant alien status. What I did understand—from the graphics of the ad, the soundtrack, and the stern voice of the announcer—was that there were beings living among us so potentially dangerous that the government had to keep track of them.


Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

This was the era of Conelrad (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) System tests. At the time, it was assumed that Soviet bombers could hone in on American targets by using radio or TV Stations as beacons. And the Conelrad system had two purposes: 1) to thwart Soviet missile tracking through a timed relay of broadcast signals and 2) to provide civil defense information in the case of an emergency.

During a Conelrad system test, television and radio stations would shut down for five seconds, return to the air for five seconds, then shut down again for five seconds and finally transmit a high-pitched tone (the kind that sends dogs into a pained barking frenzy) for 15 seconds. This procedure was followed by the familiar announcement—“this has been a test.” If it had been a real alert, the announcer informed us, if missiles were really coming at us, we would have been told to switch to the specially marked numbers on our little civil-defense portable radios, and to head for bomb shelters.


Johnny Carson

In the early 1960s, the nation was in the throes of Sputnik-envy. Public Service Announcements from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, exhorted us to buff up for America, and the space race was big news. The National Council of Churches advertised regularly. In San Francisco, nightly station sign-offs were packaged as an affair of State. The National Anthem played, while onscreen the flag waved proudly “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” On some stations, this flag shot was followed by images of planes flying in formation, a visual reminder of the Armed Services that watched the skies (aliens and missiles again) and kept us safe while we slept. Television did not resume until about 6 a.m., and it resumed with a similar nationalistic tribute.

I begin with these reminiscences for several reasons. The most obvious is that serialized TV histories (histories of TV) tend to leave out the most interesting aspects of TV flow, what might be called TV’s excess or its historical paracinematic (or perhaps para-televisual) appeal. In fact, they tend not to treat TV flow at all, opting instead for a discussion of celebrities, genres and specific programs. The Pioneers of Television (PBS and Boettcher Trinklein Productions; currently running on most PBS stations) is no exception in this regard, dividing the history of early TV into eponymous genre episodes and focusing primarily on celebrities and beloved programs, rather than on networks, institutions, ephemera, ads, PSAs, or programming trends. The clips of the individual television shows themselves are wonderful, but the way the series constructs TV history is highly problematic. Even within the framework of exemplary actors, genres and programs, a great deal is omitted. Not a word about the innovative Ernie Kovacs show in the Variety segment, for example (aired January 16, 2008 PBS), even though the show ran off and on for 5 years on NBC and CBS (1951-56). Nothing about Amos and Andy (1951-1953, CBS) during the Sitcoms episode (Sitcoms, January 2, 2008 PBS); nothing really about any African-American performers with the notable exception of Nat King Cole.


Tommy Smothers and Carol Burnett

More troubling is the way the series constructs the historical TV-viewing audience and the way it depicts the cultural work of TV itself. Toward the end of Sitcoms, the narrator tells us the genre would change in the 1970s; “innocence,” he opines, “would be replaced by relevance” as shows like All in the Family (1971-1983, CBS) succeeded the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 CBS). That notion of an early innocent or naïve viewing audience has driven much of the Pioneers series to date. And, of course, such a view can be constructed only through the careful generic exclusion of documentaries and anthology dramas, the political exclusion of the Red Scare, and the celebrity exclusion of Edward R. Murrow, Rod Serling, Paddy Chayevsky and Ida Lupino—to name just a few. Even the discussion of the Quiz show scandals (Game Shows, January 23, 2008) does little to trouble this tale of an idyllic and child-like televisual past, as images of Mark Van Doren segue seamlessly into an explanation of Standards and Practices, and finally into a discussion of the panel shows (whose format did not allow for cheating, the announcer tells us). The entire episode is orchestrated to prove the voiceover claim, made early in the hour; namely that Americans love to play.


Bob Barker

The Pioneers of Television is vested, then, in an image of TV as what Richard Dyer might term “utopian” entertainment—entertainment that makes us feel wonderful. There is a certain irony in this, since the utopic value of Broadcast TV is precisely the quality which PBS generally critiques when it cites its own difference from “regular,” commercial broadcasting. What Pioneers ignores is what I tried to re-introduce at the beginning of this essay; namely, the degree to which television of the 1950s and 60s was invested not only in utopic entertainment and in information, but also in the production and performance of nation, nationalism and notions of citizenship.

In fact, the presumption behind Conelrad was not only that television should be used to inculcate notions of citizenship, but that television itself—its transmitters and broadcast signals—could be used as both weapon and defense. Civil Defense procedures outlined for stations were detailed and frightening. In the event of an attack, all television and FM radio stations were required to stop broadcasting. Most medium-wave radio stations were also required to shut down. The radio stations remaining on the air would transmit on either 640 or 1240 kHz (and every radio set had these frequencies clearly marked—with a special civil defense logo—on the radio dial). Each station would stay on the air for several minutes, then it would go off the air, and another station would take over broadcast responsibilities—in a round-robin transmission chain.

Then duck. cover, and kiss your sweet bippie goodbye.

Image Credits:
1. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
2. Johnny Carson
3. Tommy Smothers and Carol Burnett
4. Bob Barker

Please feel free to comment.

Burning Down the House: Community Access TV and the Downtown Art Shows

The Downtown Art Show (1974-1984) was one of the celebrated art events of 2006. Drawn in part from materials which Richard Hell donated to the New York University Fales Library, the show brought together original cultural products, fashion, and artifacts (hand lettered signs, a crowbar, fundraising letters, and an old menu from Max’s Kansas City, to name a few items). It was colorful and hip and loud. And it traveled to three cities. It opened at the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library at New York University (January 10-April 1, 2006). From there it traveled to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (May 20-September 3, 2006). Finally, it closed at The Austin Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas (November 11, 2006-January 28, 2007). Recently, a related show, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967 opened at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (Sept 29. 2007-Jan 6, 2008). While this show starts with the Velvet Underground, it devotes a large number of galleries to the downtown and No-Wave movements of the1975-1995 period.[2]

The Downtown Art Show

The Downtown Art Show

There’s a lot to be said about the way the Downtown show traveled—and I would recommend this exhibit as a case study for anyone working in Museum Studies. What concerns me in this column, however, is not the larger exhibition politics of the Downtown and Sympathy shows, but rather the way film and tv are presented in each. While films and tv programs were shown on monitors throughout the galleries in both Pittsburgh and Austin, the larger institutional role played by community access cable and independent film distribution was largely invisible (The distribution and exhibition practices of the art world were not similarly erased; in Pittsburgh, they were foregrounded).[3] In the catalogue, even specific television programs get short shrift, since they receive only brief mention within a larger essay on No-Wave Cinema.[4] At the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, attribution is more problematic. Individual videos are presented totally outside their institutional context. Information tags tell us the names of the pieces, the performers, and the artists who created the works, but give no information about where the pieces were originally shown.

In part, this erasure is a definable function of museum and “core art cinema institutions,” which—as Haidee Wasson points out—“have tended to pose themselves explicitly against commercial film [and tv] culture and formed around concepts of aesthetic distinctiveness.”[5] But the limited reference to exhibition and distribution masks the key role which television played for artists of this era. The Downtown Art Scene was one of the first alternative art movements to use tv in a concerted way, as a means both of showcasing work and of building community. The largely unpublicized late-night cable Downtown lineup included films, gallery tours, interview shows, news videos and public service announcements. The PSAs—often starring “celebrities” like Laurie Anderson and Kathy Acker—informed viewers about the burgeoning culture wars affecting grant funding, about police crackdowns, and about AIDS. The news videos were stranger. Throughout the period, artist-videographers took their cameras into the street and simply recorded what they saw there. Charles Ahearn’s Doing Time on Times Square (1991) and Rik Little’s The Church of Shooting Yourself (1993-present) are among the best known latecomers to this tradition. But throughout the 80s, frequently unattributed tapes would simply show up at a station; these often-jarring cinema-vérité/reality TV amalgams would play on Community Access. When people came home from their night jobs, they could tune in and see what had happened on the street while they were waiting tables. This was alternative media before the Net—a time when late night television was as surreal and real an experience as anyone could hope to have.

Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

Television was one of the principal means for disseminating art outside the immediate New York area. Community Access stations in the Midwest picked up tapes and public service packages which they aired in special Free Speech TV slots.
In the early 90s, I saw a lineup of PSAs and Craig Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws (1995) on BCAT (Bloomington Community Access Television, Bloomington Indiana)—Channel 3 on my television dial. Through that transmission I discovered the Monday, Wednesday, Friday Video Club in New York, which distributed Downtown titles on poorly transferred VHS tapes. Through MWF, I was able to teach the things I had been watching during the eighties—when I lived on the West Coast—to my midwest students.[6] Given the institutional trajectory—independent production to community access cable to indie distribution to classroom use–one could argue that much of the niche-market for the Downtown Art Show was created, early on, by the artists themselves—through the savvy use of guerilla distribution and Community Access tv.

It is not my intention here to trash two shows which I enjoyed and which do a superb job of returning the Downtown Art scene to the cultural radar screen. But I do want to make a case for writing Cable Access Television and Independent Film Distribution back into Downtown history. As I have already noted, cable television played a key role in showcasing experimental works, and, by extension, in constructing the downtown scene itself. Not only did it chronicle downtown life and circulate needed information, but—as Gregg Bordowitz has noted in another context—it constituted an event “because its production…[was] part of a larger effort to organize increasing numbers of people to take action.” The Downtown Art Scene was perhaps the last historical movement which believed deeply that one could make a political difference simply by intervening in society’s spectacle. So every transmission, every tv show, every film played a double role of entertainment/education on the one hand and agit-prop on the other.[7]

Sonic Outlaws

Sonic Outlaws

In addition, TV aesthetics played a crucial role in the look of Downtown Art. While shows like Willoughby Sharpe’s New York were shaped by what Raymond Williams might call a Downtown “structure of feeling,” they were also heavily influenced by the look of certain kinds of commercial TV. Segments frequently remind me less of formal Dada art and theater (to which they are frequently compared) than to the old Ernie Kovacs Show (1951-1956) or to Laugh-In (1968-1973). But this televisual effect extends beyond television and video works to some Downtown graphic pieces and publications as well. Downtown Art follows a longstanding avant-garde tradition of drawing heavily from popular culture, and the popular culture which Downtown Artists knew best was pop music, comic books, film and television.

Special thanks to Chris Anderson, Robert Clift, Marlene Costa and Skip Hawkins.

[1] The title of this article refers to the song “Burning Down the House,” which was initially released on the Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues LP (Sire Records1983).

[2] Downtown art refers to the movement roughly spanning 1974-1995 which took its name from the Lower East Side of New York City (“downtown”) where it was largely centered. Affiliated with punk music and the new raw trends of Suburban Ambush literature, the movement comprised people like Kathy Acker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Karen Finley, Jenny Holzer and David Wojnarowitz.

[3] The Warhol Museum described alternative gallery exhibition against the context of the Loft Law (which made it legal for artists to live in SoHo’s industrial spaces) and the larger real estate politics of New York City.

[4] Marvin Taylor, ed. The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984.
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. See pages 103, 108,121-122, note 7 on page 128.

[5] Haidee Wasson, Museum Movies: the Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. 6.

[6] The Monday, Wednesday, Friday Video Club has been transferring their titles to DVDs.
The webpage is Accessed 10.20.07.

[7] Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-2003. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2004. 50-51.

Image Credits:
1. The Downtown Art Show
2. Sympathy for the Devil
3. Sonic Outlaws

Please feel free to comment.

White Channels

Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

Approximately eight years ago, a racially motivated murder on the campus where I teach led me to research white supremacist websites.[1] Recently, I thought that I should revisit those sites and check for new developments. But this is demoralizing work and I wasn’t exactly anxious to log on to Then I tuned into Democracy Now’s extended coverage of the Jena 6 case and heard a snippet from one of David Duke’s radio broadcasts.[2] So, last week I bit the bullet, bought a quadruple-shot, 12-ounce cappuccino, opened my laptop and began surfing the web for “European” sites.

Some statistics

Membership in white supremacist groups is difficult to track. During the 1980s, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith estimated that total U.S. membership fluctuated between approximately 11,500 people in 1981 to 5,000 in 1987.[3] The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors organizations rather than individuals, claims that the number of hate groups in the U.S. is on the rise, currently totaling 844.[4] These numbers, however, can be misleading, since some of the “groups” have only two or three members, and an increased number of groups does not necessarily signal an increased number of participants. White supremacists tend to be a contentious lot, and groups often feud and splinter.

Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

Since the 1990s, many scholars have preferred to rely on government hate crime statistics rather than on guesstimates of group membership, in part because they provide a more meaningful picture of actual activity and in part because they give a more accurate portrait of the real impact these groups have on people’s lives. In November 2005, the US Department of Justice chronicled 7,649 criminal incidents that law enforcement agencies reported “as motivated by a bias against race, religion, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation” (total crime figures for the period were approximately 5.4 million offenses). The number of hate-crime victims was estimated to be 9,528; the number of offenders: 7,145.[5] While the actual number of hate crimes remains proportionately low (relative to other violent crime), its impact on a community can be enormous. Eight years after the Won-Joon Yoon murder in Bloomington, many businesses and homes still display the Bloomington United “No Hate” signs that date from that era.

Kids “planting” lawn signs

Kids “planting” lawn signs

Not all hate crime is perpetrated by members of supremacist groups, and not all perpetrators of hate crimes have visited “nationalist” websites. But racialist sites do continue to advocate violence, and often provide information that makes it easy for people to act. On September 21, 2007, for example, Bill White, Commander of the American National Socialist Worker’s Party, listed the home addresses of the Jena 6 on the American Nazi Party’s website. “Get in touch,” he urged. “Let them know justice is coming.”[6]

Reviewing the sites

The way in which the websites conceptualize race has not substantially changed in the past eight years. But the target of essentialist race hatred has shifted; Anti-Semitic “news” items have increased significantly. Aryan Nations has always featured dramatically anti-Semitic reports on its site, and did so again this week. But most of the other major white nationalist sites led with Anti-Semitic items, as well. David Duke posted a radio broadcast on the Jena 6, but the majority of his site exposes what he considers to be “Jewish hate crimes” perpetrated by the State of Israel and American Zionists.[7] Even the official Klan website was more concerned with Mexicans and Jews this week than it was with the Jena 6 trial. Illegal Immigration—a plot fostered by illegal Mexicans and Jews to challenge the white Christian way of life—was the hot topic on both the Klan site and its weekly post of White Pride TV.

The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

If the Jew did not exist, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote, it would be necessary to invent him.[8] That certainly seems to be the case here. The immediate cause motivating the increase in onsite anti-Semitism appears to be white nationalist opposition to the Iraq War. Duke’s site is the most explicit in this regard. “No war for Israel” reads one sidebar and the lead story for October 1, 2007 stresses “the threat that the Jewish lobby poses to national security.”[9] Aryan Nations and the Klan similarly blame Israel for a war that is killing white Europeans. “Support our Troops! Bring them home!” reads a sidebar on the KKK website. “Put them on OUR border.”

Throughout this column I have mentioned radio broadcasts and television transmissions; the most striking change on the websites involves technology. Most sites now feature mediacasts and post links to other media. And it is the possibility of wider “knowledge” dissemination—through media—that currently drives many of the sites. While white supremacist broadcasts are not as professionally polished as evangelical broadcasts, nationalist groups seem to aspire to the same media success that Conservative Christians have enjoyed.[10] And it is important to note that white nationalists often have strong ties to fundamentalist Christian organizations.

Media outreach on the sites also translates into increased outreach to women. When I first looked at supremacist sites eight years ago, they had a distinctly masculinist appeal; the few articles addressed directly to women had mainly to do with home schooling. That has changed. The Klan site now has a special link, “woman-to-woman” with “articles, news, and views of interest to women—about religion, politics, family and more.”[11] Duke’s ex-wife Chloë Hardin is one of the co-founders of Stormfront; she has maintained close ideological ties with her ex-husband and frequently interviews him for the bulletin board. Duke himself sponsors a special page supporting Cindy Sheehan.[12] Even Aryan Nations, the most unapologetically violent of the groups (“Our Motto: Violence Solves Everything”) recently ran a spate of non-racialist pro-life videos, designed as media outreach to young pregnant European women. These seemed to be designed with possible Church use in mind. The Klan and Aryan Nations also link to an adoption service which offers support to young, pregnant, white women.

More Stats

The Simon Weisenthal Center has identified “close to 7,000 ‘problematic’ websites, blogs, youtube [postings]and other on-demand sites.”[13] So the sites covered here are just a small smattering of what’s available. Many webpages exploit historical ignorance and healthy skepticism about received ideas. Often, postings (especially on youtube) can skate under the radar, since they don’t necessarily identify their sources as racialist. All of them claim to have uncovered part of the suppressed “Truth”—about history, about current events. Unfortunately, we have no reliable figures to measure how successfully they spread disinformation.


Special thanks to Mark Benedetti, Robert Clift, David Coon and Skip Hawkins.

[1] See Joan Hawkins, “ ‘Click Here if You’re White’: the construction of Race and Gender on White Supremacist Web Sites,” Concerns, Vol 27, Numbers 1 and 2 (Spring 2000) 45-58.
[2] Democracy Now, The War and Peace Report (September 21,2007).
[3] Joseph Berger, “Report on Hate Groups Says They’re Weaker,” New York Times June 11,1987.
[4] “Intelligence Report: The Year in Hate.”
[5] Posted on the United Way website of Greater Los Angeles. accessed Oct 2, 2007. The Bureau of Justice Incident-based statistics site was revised in Aug 2007, but still appears to be using the 2005 figures. Accessed Oct 2,2007.
[6] American Nazi Party. Accessed Sept 21,2007. When I tried to re-access the list on October 2, it had disappeared.
[7] See David Accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[8] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew excerpts. Trans George J. Becker, New York: Schocken Books, 1948.
[9] See Michael Collins, AFP, “Zionist ‘Gorilla’ Now Being Discussed,”
David Oct 1, 2007; accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[10] See Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
[11] See (“Woman to Woman”). Accessed October 2, 2007.
[12] See (David Posting). Accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[13] See “Digital Terrorism and Hate,” Simon Weisenthal Center site. Accessed Oct 3, 2007.


1. Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

2. Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

3. Kids “planting” lawn signs

4. The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

Please feel free to comment.

Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens)–Part 2

by: Joan Hawkins/Indiana University, Bloomington

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 opened on June 25, 2004, I was in Hettinger, North Dakota, visiting my mother. I had to drive to Bison, South Dakota (approximately 42 miles away) to pack up her old apartment, and thought I would take a long detour, go to Rapid City and see the film—maybe hit Starbucks on the way back. According to The Rapid City Journal, however, there were no screenings of Moore’s movie planned for Rapid City. The Carmike Theater had refused to book Fahrenheit 911, and neither of the other two theaters had picked it up. “Is it in Bismarck?” my husband asked. Not in Bismarck either. It turned out that for people living in the Dakotas or Wyoming, there was only one place to see Fahrenheit 911 the week it opened—Fargo, North Dakota.[1]

So, on June 27, 2004, Skip and I took a break from mom-care, drove 361 miles to Fargo, and joined movie goers from three states to watch what had become for us a truly renegade film. The audience was appreciative and politely clapped as the movie concluded. “Did you know all that?” I heard a woman ask her companion, as we left the theater. “No, I did not,” he said softly. “Guess we’ll have to bite the bullet and get a dish.”

Dish Penetration Figures

According to a GAO Report, dated April 2005, Direct Broadcast Satellite penetration rates were “higher in rural areas than in suburban and urban areas throughout the 2001-2005 period. In 2001, penetration rates were highest in rural areas at 25.6 percent, followed by 13.9 percent in suburban areas and 8.6 percent in urban areas. As of January 2004, DBS penetration remained the highest in rural areas, growing to about 29 percent, while it grew to 18 percent of suburban households and 13 percent of urban households.”[2] By 2006 Direct Broadcast Satellite had become “the dominant provider of video services in rural America,” outpacing cable.[3]

In the specific region I came to know so well, the penetration ratio is slightly lower: 21.16% in North Dakota and 20.86% in South Dakota. This is largely due to the depressed economy. Only 47.25% of North Dakota households has cable. This is a shockingly small percentage given how difficult it is to get TV reception without it (see Dish Towns Part One).

But this is also an area of the country where people—even people with “good” positions—typically work two or three jobs. At the Hillcrest Care Center where my mother lived, most of the staff had supplemental employment elsewhere. One aide assisted at the neighboring hospital and waitressed at Peppy’s, when she wasn’t helping the infirm at Hillcrest. My mother’s favorite caretaker worked at Hillcrest only on weekends, because she taught at the local high school and coached women’s athletics for pay during the week. The Social Worker in Charge of Resident Services at Hillcrest moonlighted as a bartender at the Pastime Steakhouse; the lady in charge of billing also made me margaritas at the Pastime. And virtually everyone I met in the West River area tried to “pick up a little extra” during the Harley-Davidson bike rally held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota. The Upper Plains States are, as President Bush remarks in Moore’s most recent film Sicko (2007), “uniquely American.” People work long hard hours in multiple jobs to make ends meet, and they frequently have little money left over for the kinds of services that many of us consider essential—services like communication.

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

Dish Towns

Given the depressed economy of the region, 21% DBS penetration is remarkable. And, as I argued in Dish Towns Part One, it is necessary if residents are to maintain some kind of link with the dominant culture. This is an area of the country where cable is expensive and where residents typically pay more for fewer channels than they do elsewhere. Radio reception is poor, and access to in-depth national and international news coverage is extremely limited. In the areas where people have computer access, the web is available. But even residents who have good internet service need to know what to search for online, in order to get any real information. In large areas of the country cell phone use is impossible and web access is inadequate. And as I argued in Part One of this series, it isn’t only special interest indie films which have restricted release in this country. In rural areas where saturation booking is a common practice, and where towns typically have a single one-screen movie theater, many contemporary mainstream films can be seen only online, at home, or by special arrangement.

As stated in Part One, I have called the sparsely-populated enclaves of farmhouses and small town dwellings that pepper the Upper Plains States “dish towns” specifically in order to link them to the immigrant Dish Cities, described by Hamid Naficy and others. In some ways, of course, this is a hyperbolic comparison. White rural populations who live in the Upper Plains have not left home under dire circumstances and traveled to a strange country, where they are cut off from family, friends, and their own history. They are not “deterritorialized” in the way, Naficy argues, exiles are.[4]

But rural populations do occupy the status of “Other” in this country and, like the Iranian exiles whom Naficy interviews, their assimilation into the “host” culture is “neither total or irreversible” (p. 86). This is most tangibly signaled through the commodity-rationing to which they are subjected, particularly in the realms of technology and media. It is also signaled, however, in the content of the media they receive—content which always seems to speak to rural residents in a different voice about things that are often of no immediate concern to them.

In 2002, shortly after my mother moved back to Bison, South Dakota, I sat on the floor of her tiny apartment watching the breaking news on the Michael Skakel murder trial. Skakel had murdered Martha Moxley in 1975, when they were both 15 years old. He was Robert Kennedy’s nephew (by marriage) and the trial had garnered a great deal of news coverage as a result. It also fascinated because of the difficulty in sentencing an adult man for a crime committed when he was a juvenile offender. Would he receive the lighter juvenile sentence or would he be sentenced as an adult?

As Mom and I sat on the floor together, drinking coffee and watching Good Morning, America, I happened to glance up through the dormer windows of her apartment. Outside on an unpaved road, two trucks had pulled up beside each other. The drivers were talking about the falling price of corn, disastrous in a community where corn is a staple crop and where a terrible drought had already hit the farmers hard. And for the first time in my life, I realized that nothing I habitually saw on television reflected the reality I had been observing for two weeks in that community. By the same token, until I drove across the country and saw the land, I had very little real idea about how the populations of several states actually live.

In that sense, it seems to me that Dish Towns U.S.A are located in the kind of continuously “liminal” space that Naficy theorizes for immigrant cultures. They are located in a kind of “slipzone” where a “home” grass-roots culture and a host national culture “overlap and slide over and under and past each other” (p.86). The fact that this “host” national culture belongs to the country in which rural citizens were born,and that they need a satellite dish to even access it, is something we media scholars must consider when we speak of audience.

Special Thanks to Chris Anderson, David Coon, and Skip Hawkins.
Dish Towns Parts One and Two are dedicated to my mother, Theresa Berning–a hard-working woman if ever there was one—in memoriam.

[1] For more on this, see William Rivers Pitt, “Thank You, Michael Moore”

[2] Government Accountability Office Report to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate. “Telecommunications: Direct Broadcast Subscribership Has Grown Rapidly, but Varies Across Different Types of Markets.” GAO-050257 (April 2005) pg 7

[3] Linda Moss, “DBS Rules Rural America.” Multichannel News, NO, Volume 00, Issue 00 (Jan 30, 2006) Factiva database.

[4] See Hamid Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization.” Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged Otherness and the. Ed Hamid Naficy and Teshome H. Gabriel. USA, Switzerland et al: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. pp. 85-116. Subsequent citations given in the text.

Image Credits:

1. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

2. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.

Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens) Part One

by: Joan Hawkins / Indiana University-Bloomington

The Small Dish Town of Bison, South Dakota

The Small Dish Town of Bison, South Dakota

As Gregory Waller has noted, much of what we know about screen history derives from urban experience (Waller 2002). This is certainly true of television history; television business practices, consumption patterns and saturation levels are simply easier to track across dense city populations than across sprawling—frequently transient—rural ones. I was reminded of this the other night at dinner, as I told some friends about my experiences visiting what I came to think of as “Dish Towns” in the northern plains states, over a three year period beginning in 2002.

Dish Towns are sparsely-populated enclaves of farmhouses and small town dwellings—sometimes spanning as much as three hundred miles of state roads and highways—that pepper the landscape across rural America. This is a landscape marked mostly by farms and prairie grass. Rusting tractors and gasoline pumps sometimes perch on hilltops, a testament to the increasing pressure on small farmers to sell and move on. It is also a landscape marked by hundreds of TV satellite dishes.

I call these enclaves Dish Towns, rather than Dish Networks, specifically in order to link them to the immigrant Dish Cities, described by Hamid Naficy (Naficy 1993) and others. Like densely populated urban immigrant communities, the rural population I am describing depends on satellite dishes to maintain contact with a perceived “home” culture. The fact that rural dish users reside in the country whose culture—without the dish—is so frequently unavailable to them is one of the things we need to take into account when we discuss audience.

The back story

In 2001 my 84 year old mother left San Francisco and moved back to the tiny South Dakota town where she had been born. Shortly after she moved, she suffered a debilitating stroke. Unable to care for herself and too frail to move closer to her children, she moved into the nicest rest home I could find. And I began the period of my life that my son calls my On the Road phase—making six trips a year to a part of the country about which I knew very little.

The first thing you learn as you drive across the northern plains states is just how large this country is. I mean really learn it, in a visceral way, rather than as some abstract notion. There are long expanses of road—sometimes as much as 200 miles—where you don’t even see a farmhouse. Signs are often misleading; and you quickly learn to fill the gas tank where you can, since some towns are too small and impoverished to support even a single commercial pump. Radio reception is poor; cell phone use is frequently impossible. “Rest stop” can mean anything from the full service oasis most of us are used to (indoor restrooms, a place to walk the dog, vending machines) to a picnic table and benches chained to a cement block by the side of the road. “This is where our ancestors used to hallucinate from thirst, go mad and die,” my husband would grimly quip. Frequently we saw animal carcasses and skulls on the roadside; there was a lot of roadkill.

From the West River Cable Television Website

From the West River Cable Television Website

The second thing you learn is how hard it is to get good TV. To begin with, there are simply fewer channels. A quick look at the West River Cable Television website confirmed this. In Bloomington, Indiana (pop. 120,563) where I reside, the basic no-frills cable package includes 65 channels. In the area comprising Minot, Dickinson, and Bismarck, North Dakota, basic cable includes 39 channels. It also costs more—$25 per month compared to the $19.99 which basic cable subscribers in Bloomington pay. This discrepancy—higher costs for fewer channels—extends all the way across the spectrum. Digital cable in Bloomington costs $40 a month for 200 channels; digital cable in the West River area costs $60 month for sometimes as few as 100 channels. The maximum number of cable channels available in this region is 195 (as a point of comparison, at the time of this writing a two bedroom, two bathroom house in Minot, North Dakota rents for approx $525 a month; a two bedroom apartment rents for $300; in Bloomington, rents are more than double that amount).

In the small motels I came to know so well, cable reception was terrible.
At first I thought this was simply the fault of the TV sets themselves. These were low budget operations and the sets were frequently ancient. But soon I noticed that even the more upscale places—the Travel Lodges and Hamilton Inns which provided brand new sets–had trouble consistently offering a quality picture. Turner Classic was not available at the Mirror Lodge motel in Hettinger, North Dakota; neither was CNN. Good Morning America became one of my most reliable sources of national news during long stretches of my many trips. Local newspapers frequently do not cover international news at all and only cover national news that is of immediate local interest (a group of North Dakota soldiers is sent to Iraq, for example). Even in urban corporate stores —the Starbucks in Bismarck, North Dakota and the Borders in Rapid City for example—it was difficult to find a copy of The New York Times dated for the date of purchase. As a result, whenever I moved outside an area that could pick up CNN or NPR (which was all too often) I also lost the ability to get reliable, extensive news coverage that was less than two days old.

Access to Hollywood is frequently as limited as access to Washington D.C. The town of Hettinger, North Dakota (pop 1,574) has one tiny single screen movie theater. The bill changes weekly. Films are shown Thursday through Monday in a single screening at 7:30 p.m. If the film of the week is kid-friendly, there is an additional Sunday Matinee. On Thanksgiving weekend, 2003, the theater was screening Brother Bear (Disney, 2003). I was in the mood for something a little edgier, so I began checking listings for single screen theaters within an easy driving distance (in the plains, “easy” means up to 100 miles). I was surprised to learn that the theaters in Dickinson, Bowman, Lemmon, and Mott were all showing Brother Bear. On subsequent trips I checked to see if this was an anomaly, a kind of Thanksgiving weekend need to have kid-friendly fare close to home. What I discovered was that the Brother Bear booking schedule was the rule rather than the exception. On any given weekend , the area from Bison, South Dakota all the way to Rapid City in the south and to Bismarck in the north was saturation booked with one title. This means that for people living in this area, seeing a different film would require up to a four hour drive. Also, since the pressure is intense to screen films rated PG-13 or lower, there are some movies which never make it into the area at all. I am not speaking here of foreign or even edgy independent titles, but rather major Hollywood releases.

No wonder, then, that the further into the plains I drove, the more TV satellite dishes I saw—not just attached to small town houses, but also attached to farmhouses and little country churches located on desolate strips of highway. Dish TV is really the best option for staying connected that residents of the northern plains have (regional internet connections have their own vexed histories). TO BE CONTINUED

Works Cited
Hamid Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization.” Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged. Hamid Naficy and Teshome Gabriel, eds. USA: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. 85-117

Gregory Waller. Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition. Malden MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Image Credits

1. The Small Dish Town of Bison, South Dakota

2. From the West River Cable Television Website

Please feel free to comment.