The following text is developed from a body of research originally produced as part of The Combative Phase, an exhibition of films and documents and a series of programs held at Yale Union (Portland, US) in 2017.
Left to themselves, large communities do a dreadful job of communicating internally. Ghettoes, whether in Bel Air or Marravilla, are spontaneous but inevitable microcosms of economic and ethnic nationalism. Since we all know this is explosive, it is extraordinary that community governments do so little about it. Since the University is of the community but also somewhat outside of it, we can perhaps operate successfully in this research and project field without entering politics.1
Colin Young, Chairman, Department of Theatre Arts, University of California Los Angeles, 1969
Today, the University is cast as an increasingly privatised space. Anxieties around the costs and debt associated with higher education, and the degree to which business methodologies of management and logistics have come to dominate spaces of learning, are well justified. Yet these concerns also potentially elide the degree to which the European model of the University, traditionally public, has always been a site of entwined private and public interests; and, in tandem, the extent to which the University has acted to enable the retention of accumulated advantages, even while serving as a perceived liberalising and egalitarian social force. Not only are the forms and hierarchies of knowledge demarcated by the University inherently racialised, so are the movements of material and immaterial capital activated within and beyond its walls.
This text addresses a particular set of developments in the life of one university, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), while understanding these developments as indicative of a moment in the history of the American University, and pedagogical, societal and legal shifts in the United States more broadly. Moreover, it attends to this history with the understanding that the discursive and material operations at work within it are not finite or detached from present day conditions. At the heart of this still unfolding history lies the manner in which the University continues to self-identify its institutionality: as operating to influence the world around it ‘without entering politics’; and being ‘of the community but also somewhat outside of it.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, UCLA served as a site of protest, debate and direct action in relation to both the civil rights and anti-war movements. Most notably, UCLA gained renown for its treatment of radical feminist and activist Angela Davis, who, in 1969, was fired from her position as acting assistant professor of Philosophy by the Board of Regents, who cited her membership to the Communist Party. Reinstated after a California Superior Court judge ruled her dismissal illegal, she was then fired again in 1970 for ‘inflammatory language’ in several public addresses, in which she railed against the Board of Regents and the actions of the police against student demonstrators. In her short time at UCLA, Davis was a vital voice in articulating the inequity of its admissions policies, highlighting the politicised and racialised grounds under which ‘standards’ of merit were established – what Davis termed ‘the conspiracy against education.’2
While aggressively quashed by university authorities, Davis’ activism nevertheless occurred against the backdrop of a series of structural shifts at UCLA related to its admission policies. In Universities across the United States, changes to such policies were given impetus by intersecting yet distinct forces, specifically the mandate towards affirmative action within education, written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and widespread dissent by existing student bodies against the white domination of spaces of higher education. At UCLA, such shifts also reflected the fallout from the Watts Rebellion of 1965, which echoed other uprisings against institutional racism, discrimination and police brutality in inner cities across the United States. This ‘rioting’ was widely defined as an ‘urban crisis,’ and led to the establishment of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD) in 1967, which among its recommendations cited the need for ‘expanded opportunities for higher education through increased federal assistance to disadvantaged students.’3 As newly appointed President of the University of California, in 1968 Charles Hitch presented a paper to the Board of Regents titled What Must We Do: The University and the Urban Crisis. The UCLA staff bulletin at the time reported Hitch as saying: ‘we need to be blunt and direct. Our nation, our state and our cities are in the grip of a crisis. It is a moral, economic and racial crisis. It is also an educational crisis.’4
In the same year as Hitch’s paper, UCLA established the High Potential Program (HPP), a ‘special entry program to modify the composition of the student population at the University’5 conceived by a joint student-faculty committee, based on recommendations from the Black Students Union (BSU) and United Mexican American Students (UMAS). Simultaneously, proposals were made towards the founding of an Institute of American Cultures; when inaugurated the following year, the Institute comprised of centres for Afro-American, Asian American, Chicano and American Indian studies.6 The historical insights provided by individual testimonies and University reports in UCLA archives offer an understanding of the push-and-pull within these structural developments, where dominant structures of knowledge, language and representation were inflected by the demands of radical politics that actively resisted prevailing forms of governance.
The adoption by UCLA of the HPP and the four nascent centres within the Institute of American Cultures, appear through this push-and-pull as meeting points of the liberal notion of formal equality, and a more radical conception of ‘distributive justice.’7 As legal scholar and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris has asserted: ‘Formal equality overlooks structural disadvantage and requires mere nondiscrimination or “equal treatment”; by contrast, affirmative action calls for equalising treatment by redistributing power and resources in order to rectify inequities and to achieve real equality.’8 The affirmative action mandate within the Civil Rights Act, as a potential catalyst for ‘distributive justice,’ is apparent as a contested and imminently foreclosed site within the educational and juridical spheres. The University of California was in fact at the heart of this historical slippage: in 1978, the Supreme Court heard its first case in contestation of affirmative action policies, brought by a white applicant, Allan Bakke, refused entry to the University of California Medical School. The court invalidated the University’s special admissions plan by citing the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ruling that Bakke had been the victim of ‘reverse discrimination’ and that the plan denied future white applicants the opportunity to compete for all seats in the class. The seeds of this decision were, as scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva has highlighted, planted in a ‘fail- safe device’ within the Civil Rights Act, whereby ‘the state’s ability to interfere with the modern liberal capitalist “basic structure of society” was limited, with such ‘interference’ perceived as an ‘illegal action against freedom.’9
The liberal response to ‘moral, economic and racial crisis’ is reflected also in the University hierarchy’s adoption of the term ‘urban crisis’ as a rallying point. The term as it was used by Hitch, in papers framing the HPP curriculum, and in other contexts at UCLA, points to a conception of a highly racialised and pathologised object of study, building on the NACCD definition of ‘a system of failure and frustration that dominates the ghetto.’10 The BSU and UMAS recommended that the HPP address the systematic elimination from higher education of Chicanos and African Americans. Yet rather than being centred on any inquiry into socioeconomic conditions incumbent to these systemic failings, or deficiencies in existing curricula and pedagogical approaches as they pertained to all levels of education, the development of the HPP instead focused on defining a curriculum that identified ‘negative self-concept’ as the cause of ‘the serious educational lag of both the Afro-American and Chicano child.’11 Within this particular application of the overarching principle of affirmative action lay a struggle between such implicit casting of psychological deficiency in both individuals and communities (and hence the perceived need to rectify this deficiency by ‘benevolently’ ‘preparing students for successful matriculation’), and the challenging of ‘the conspiracy against education’ that defined standards of merit from particular subject positions, and in so doing biased admission along lines of race, gender and socioeconomic status.
In tandem with the establishment of the HPP and the Institute of American Cultures, UCLA also took on a further initiative in response to the ‘urban crisis.’ In April 1969, Vice Chancellor Paul O Proehl wrote to a number of UCLA faculty engaged with communication, including those from the departments of Journalism, English, Political Science, Speech and Theatre Arts, stating:
You are asked to serve as an ad hoc committee to consider the role of UCLA in translating its interest, knowledge and activities relating to the urban crisis and the special needs of ethnic minorities into radio and television programming, particularly for educational purposes on a mass basis. This relates, as you know, to the efforts of UCLA to acquire the necessary channels and facilities to embark upon a program of education and interaction based on the use of electronic mass media.12
Colin Young, the Director of the UCLA Theatre Arts Department that encompassed Motion Pictures and Television studies, was appointed Chair of what became known as the Media Urban Crisis Committee (MUCC). The short history of the MUCC and its subsequent effects, as evidenced by internal papers held at UCLA and individual testimonies, can perhaps be read as two distinct but simultaneous histories: one that is institutional, and another that is fugitive. These parallel histories and their interweaving reveal both specific localised conditions and speak to those in the United States and globally, at the intersection between communication, ‘new’ media, liberal education, and race.
The institutional history is most evident in various UCLA internal documents, circulating around the operations of the MUCC. These suggest that the committee, and Proehl’s rather nebulous brief, was seen by members from different UCLA departments as a vehicle for realising their own departmental objectives. The principle position adopted by the committee at its outset was one of how UCLA could apply itself to study and research into three areas: radio and television educational programming; curricula for communications studies; and the development of communication techniques. This perspective appeared to coalesce around Colin Young’s judgment in relation to the ‘urban crisis’ that ‘large communities do a dreadful job of communicating internally’, and therefore that UCLA had a role to play as a communicative voice, built around its expertise in research into differing forms of communication and the possibilities for educational programming. As such, the MUCC enfolded some existing initiatives, such as the University Extension Media Centre that produced educational films and audio programs for in-work or retired learners in the Los Angeles region, with no formal admissions requirements. And it also prompted new propositions, such as that from the Department of Speech to establish a Teaching and Research Laboratory, justified under the auspices of the MUCC through the department’s imminent recruitment of a ‘specialist in interracial communication,’ and therefore its preparedness to ‘study socially relevant and significant forms of communication’ to the ‘urban crisis.’13
The fugitive history of the MUCC is less evident in the official papers of the committee, and is instead sketched in the negative spaces of exchanged internal letters and memos, through individual testimonies, and as chronicled within a paper delivered by former Theatre Arts Assistant Professor Elyseo J Taylor in 1976, at the conference ‘The Role of the Mass Media in Enlisting Public Support for Marginal Groups’ in Bellagio, Italy. Taylor was the first African-American faculty member of the Theatre Arts department, and was recruited by Colin Young in 1968, after working as a film and media educator in two community-run cultural organisations in Watts: the Watts Happening Café and the Mafundi Institute. Taylor was one of the original faculty invited to be part of the MUCC by Proehl, and it seems that by December 1969 he had undertaken a central role, authoring a staff report on the committee’s progress. In fact, in advance of the establishment of the MUCC by Proehl, with Young’s support Taylor had begun work towards a film-training program for ‘minority’ students. By the Fall semester of 1969, the development of this program and its associated curriculum had moved, through the work of Taylor and Young, under the rubric of the MUCC. The program was successfully registered as a UCLA ‘experimental program’ under the title Media Urban Crisis Program (MUCP) in October 1969, to begin in January 1970 with a first intake of students. Even before this first semester of the program, Taylor had recruited a number of prospective students to join the MUCC through the HPP and the four centres within the Institute of American Cultures, guiding the development of the MUCP.
Despite the racist overtones in the curriculum of the HPP, a large number of students who joined UCLA through the program were politically active within civil rights and revolutionary movements, often connected to high-school protests and walk-outs. Interconnected with this, the establishment of the four ‘ethnic studies’ centres became a key point of political struggle around cultural identity.14 The students who joined the MUCC reflected this level of political engagement, with a central organisational figure alongside Taylor being Moctesuma Esparza, a founding member of the Young Chicanos For Community Action (later known as the Brown Berets).
From the staff report of December 1969 written by Taylor, it appears that his voice, and those of Esparza and other members of the prospective first cohort for the MUCP, had come to be dominant in the MUCC. The direction of the committee and its focus on the development of the new training program drew directly on both their work outside the University, and internal sit-ins and protests at UCLA that contested the white dominance of the University population. Their organisational work was highly productive: by January 1970, funding had been received from the Ford Foundation that enabled the purchase of 8mm and 16mm cameras, tape recorders and other equipment, and from UCLA towards the cost of raw film stock and processing, and the salaries of instructors and teaching assistants. A detailed curriculum was established, and twenty students were recruited from the HPP and communities in Los Angeles; five individuals admitted were from each of the ‘ethnic’ groups defined by the four centres within the Institute of American Cultures.
Despite this formalised structure and semblance of support from UCLA for the program, the fugitive nature of the manoeuvre required to establish the MUCP, as it came into direct conflict with the institutional directives of the MUCC, is evident in a number of letters from late 1969 and early 1970. In December 1969, Gilbert Garcia, the Director of the Mexican American Cultural Centre Steering Committee, wrote to Colin Young expressing that the faculty members of the MUCC ‘seem not to realise the urgency and immediacy of the question they were asked to act upon ... Attempts to reorganise and activate this committee began early this quarter. Now, at the end of this quarter, we are still faced with only postponement and seeming procrastination.’15 Reading between the lines of this letter, there is a conflict evident between the work being undertaken by Taylor and the students on the MUCC, to ‘reorganise and activate’ the committee through the establishment of a film training program, and the desires of the University hierarchy. This conflict becomes even more apparent in an exchange of letters in March 1970, begun when the four directors of the cultural centres wrote to Proehl stating:
_ the only tangible product ever to issue from the committee, the academic curriculum for minority students in communication, is in serious jeopardy due to the lack of initial support and consequent irresponsibility. During the entire existence of the curriculum the committee has not met once. Consequently, the curriculum has become a step-child within the Theatre Arts Department —unwanted, neglected, and exploited.16
Proehl’s response to this letter is lengthy, covering three pages, and conducting a bureaucratic manoeuvre likely familiar to many working in University contexts: the failure is placed at the doorstep of the committee, for having misinterpreted his original brief and formulating ‘action programs’ rather than merely making recommendations. From Proehl’s perspective, a curriculum could never be suitably supported as it fell outside the remit of the committee, which was instead intended to provide the ammunition for the University to build on its provision of ‘four 2500 megahertz Instructional Fixed Television Service channels by the Federal Communications Commission’ and ‘1) [secure] the necessary ground in the Santa Monica Hills for the antenna, and 2) the money required to buy and install the necessary hardware to activate at least two of the channels.’17
The division in the intentions functioning within and around the MUCC, between Taylor and the four cultural centres, and the UCLA hierarchy, are highly evident in these exchanges. For Proehl, the role of the MUCC was to make recommendations for how UCLA could extend its educative voice, and its analysis of the ‘urban crisis,’ into currently unreached communities through broadcasting. In essence, if we consider the capital that UCLA was trading in; primarily the degree of ‘penetration’ of its pedagogy (and by extension its social and cultural ideology), this was a move to grow UCLA’s reach through diversification of a target market. In contrast, for Taylor and the students on the MUCC, the priority was to address existing imbalances and reorient the resources of the University in order to support the development of media skills and infrastructure in underserved communities – therein, to enable access to the capital attached to the basic terms of mass communication for these communities. The distinction is in conceptions of the basic need to address inequality as on one hand, an act of liberal benevolence, and on the other of active restitution and the dismantling of accumulated advantages.
This gulf is particularly apparent in Taylor’s paper ‘Mass Media and the Social Dialogue.’ Here, a vision for what the MUCC attempted to achieve is outlined in detail, with the imperative at its core being not the broadcast of UCLA’s ‘message’ on the airwaves, but the ‘idea that art, including film, was a means by which a people could engage in dialogue with itself [rather than] eavesdropping in on the dialogue of the white community.’18 Taylor’s vision was for ‘a curriculum of instruction in film-making for students from the ethnic minorities which would enable and encourage them to use film-making as a tool in community development ... [and] research into the types of films that our communities wanted, and into how these films would have to be made,’^19 to be followed by the ‘setting up [of] Community Communication Centres (CCC),’ which would ultimately take over the function of the University program’s training and screening of films. The CCCs were conceived by Taylor in direct response to the conditions and infrastructures of ‘over-the-air’ television broadcast in Los Angeles, with ‘50 television stations operating in Southern California, none of them managed or owned by minority groups.’^20 With this saturation, Taylor looked instead to cable television, and imagined a network of interlinked cable TV stations which would all have access to an archive of programs produced both locally and nationally. The CCCs would coordinate this archive and the operation and maintenance of the cable TV stations. In direct opposition to the UCLA objective to create instructional programming for its four channels awarded by the FCC, the vision for a network of community-operated cable stations completely decentred the role of the University and its privileged access to infrastructure.
For Taylor, ‘the [Media Urban Crisis Program] students at UCLA were to be only the cadre, coordinating and further advancing the work of the other filmmaking groups that were getting started in all the communities.’21 The space for ‘social dialogue’ he looked to develop drew significantly on the liberationist positions of filmmakers from Latin America, Cuba, and Africa, where the relationship between ‘film and national culture’ was asserted as vital to the decolonisation movement. Coining the term ‘Third Cinema’ in Argentina in 1969, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas wrote that: ‘Culture and Cinema are national ... when they respond to the particular needs of development and liberation of each people.’22 Connections with filmmakers from Latin America and Africa, who directly contested Euro-American neocolonialism and imperialism in their films and writings, were made concrete through events organised by Taylor, students and Faculty of the Theatre Arts Department held at UCLA and elsewhere in LA. In October 1970, the UCLA African Studies Centre hosted the first African Film Festival in North America, including the notable participation of Ousmane Sembene and Stephane Allisante. Later visits from filmmakers included longer teaching periods from Sembene and Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, and the Brazilian director Glauber Rocha.
For a brief but highly significant period, what was opened up by Taylor and his collaborators at UCLA was a space in which the key tenets of the liberal University; of influencing the world around it ‘without entering politics,’ and being ‘of the community but also somewhat outside of it’, were contested and, to a degree, dismantled. One only needs to watch one of the first films made by the Media Urban Crisis students, Requiem 29 (1970), to comprehend this. Produced by Esparza with teaching assistant David Garcia, and with contributions from other students, Requiem 29 documents the violent police actions at the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War march on 29 August 1970, and the subsequent inquest into the killing of Los Angeles Times journalist, Ruben Salazar. Struck by a tear gas canister fired by a sheriff’s deputy directly into the cafe where he was sheltering, the death of Salazar – who was renowned for covering police abuse in the Chicano community – was found to be accidental. The film mixes footage shot by the students at the demonstration and material from television broadcasts of the inquest, which was provided by Chicano filmmaker Jesus Salvador Treviño, who was working for PBS affiliate KCET. The inquest’s questioning of Raul Ruiz, photographer and editor of the Chicano newspaper La Raza who photographed the march, is cynically diverted in service to the police’s production of a visual narrative fitting their version of events: the deputy sheriff performs a grotesquely prolonged inspection of the weapon he used to kill Salazar. As scholar and current Director of the Chicano Studies Research Centre at UCLA Chon Noriega has noted:
Salazar had represented the possibility of an ‘objective’ and professional journalism incorporating Chicanos into the body politic. Given his brutal death, however, the ‘journalists of the time’ necessarily step outside the body politic, and it is from this position that Ruiz – as the film’s implied narrator – calls for Chicanos to go it alone in the search for justice. As such the film is an example of a direct cinema about the impossibility of objectivity – direct or otherwise – for Chicanos as US citizens.23
Requiem 29 is both an incredible exercise in student filmmaking, and a searing political tool that became a community rallying point for the Brown Berets, alongside La Raza as the main Chicano-led print-media communicating the work of the Brown Power movement. An understanding of how this film and others produced at UCLA in the period sat within an institutional and educative context, offers a suitably radical perspective on what might constitute true ‘affirmative action.’
To appropriately narrate the achievements and consequences of Taylor’s conception of the MUCP and its short and long-term ambitions, along with offering perspectives on the vital films produced by students on the program, would take considerably more space than is available here.24 There are, again, both institutional and fugitive facets to this history. In Fall 1970, the MUCP was renamed Ethno-communications, formally existing under the umbrella of the TV and Motion Pictures Division of the Theatre Arts Department at UCLA. Remaining open only to students of color, the program included technical and writing classes, a film history course focused on films from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and a production component that adopted the ‘Project One’ format from the film school, with each student directing a short film with support from their peers. However, in this intended form, the Ethno-communications program lasted no more than three years. Even at its inception, the program was criticised by the university administration for its exclusion of white students, a stance deemed to endanger the provision of funding on the basis it privileged ‘ethnic structure’ above ‘disadvantaged economic condition;’25 these criticisms seemingly ignore the existing privileges retained and reproduced by white people.
In 1974, Taylor was denied tenure – an act that students at the time have attributed to racist motives – yet the influence and ethos of the Ethno-communications program and his teaching, exceeded their short lifespans at UCLA. Alongside Ethno-communications, Taylor established the upper-division undergraduate course ‘Film and Social Change’ which remains part of the core film school curriculum today. On Taylor’s departure from UCLA, PhD student Teshome Gabriel took over the teaching of the course, and as with his predecessor, his teaching and scholarship built significantly on the influence of and critical theory around Third Cinema. Between 1974 and 1976, he and other students organised the Third World Film Club, a screening program funded by the University that focused on accessing and presenting works from Latin America and Cuba, which in some cases required the breaking of United States embargos on cultural exchange. Unlike other film schools, students at UCLA retained the distribution rights to films produced at the University, and in addition to events organised on campus, their films were shown at community- based screenings in Los Angeles and elsewhere. As the ‘cadre’ for the development of community-based filmmaking in the city, organisational and circulatory structures developed around the students’ work and distinct community relationships, to varying degrees autonomous from or dependent on the existing institutional or film and media industry infrastructure. In the 1970s alone, students formed influential community and national media organisations such as the Asian-American-led Visual Communications and the Chicano Cinema Coalition, as well as taking on key roles in public broadcasting including the formation of the PBS Latino Consortium, and screening their work in national and international film festival circuits.
Today, the Media Urban Crisis and Ethno- communications programs are most heavily referenced in relation to the ‘LA Rebellion,’ a group of Black filmmakers who studied on the programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s including Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough and Julie Dash. The recent retroactive formulation of this network of filmmakers as a ‘movement,’ a group including many individuals largely ignored by film historians for decades, has been embraced by UCLA. This led to a retrospective at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2011 titled L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, and the restoration of a number of films. However, the wider history of the Media Urban Crisis and Ethno-communications; the specificities of Taylor’s vision and its immediate and long-term effects; and the manner of UCLA’s resistance to this vision, are on the whole institutionally buried.
Richard Birkett is Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. He was previously Curator at Artists Space, New York, and has also curated exhibitions and projects at Yale Union, Portland, Oregon; mumok, Vienna; and the National Gallery of Kosovo. Between 2002 and 2008 he co-ran the artist-led space Whitechapel Project Space in London.
the Social Dialogue, unpublished paper delivered on 20 September 1976 at the conference ‘The Role of the Mass Media in Enlisting Public Support for Marginal Groups,’ The European Centre for Social Welfare Training and Research, Bellagio, Italy.