• The Swamp Issue

    Being the SubMedia

    The Swamp Issue

    Frank Lopez aka “The Stimulator” has been making explosive anarchist videos since the early 2000s. Together with his collective subMedia.TV, he recently launched the new documentary show Trouble.

    Being the subMedia

    “Greetings troublemakers, welcome to Trouble. My name is not important.”

    Trouble is an apt name for subMedia’s new documentary show. If there’s one thing that defines the ethos of the North America-based video production collective, it’s trouble. Committed to fighting racism, capitalism, and the state, their fourth episode “No Justice… Just Us” was released last Sunday and covers ongoing organizing against state repression and prisons.

    SubMedia.TV is best known for their flagship project, It’s The End of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine, which concluded its ten-year run with a final episode last December. The entire show is still available on their website sub.media and provides the most entertaining if not the most thorough historical account of radical struggle for its time period. It is over a decade’s worth of US and world news told from an anarchist perspective: global warming and its deniers, the oil industry’s cozy relationship with politics, global summits and protests, suburban sprawl and financial crises, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing war against poor people of color in the US. Dense montages, underground hip hop videos, and a hilarious range of DIY tips: from powering your car with veggie oil to masking up with a t-shirt. No sports, but all the riot porn you could dream of.

    Perhaps the quickest way to describe subMedia’s subliminal message is as a cross between Dead Prez’ “Hell Yeah” and Adam Freeland’s “We Want Your Soul”.

    Many people only recognize subMedia and its productions once you mention The Stimulator – the animated host whose jokes, frequent cursing and deep voice set the tone. It’s no secret that the man behind those rectangular, asynchronously blinking eyes and mouth is Frank Lopez.

    Even though Frank Lopez frequently represents subMedia in public, he chose to be photographed wearing a mask together with his partner Heatscore. This may seem strange; what’s the point of hiding when your name is already out there? The answer is in the opening line: “My name is not important.” Today, anonymity is often seen as a means to protect the individual. But historically, obscuring identities has been used as a tool to form unity and solidarity within movements of struggle. If you know me, you know my name. If you don’t, it’s not important. When political motives of the group are set before individual ones, it makes sense to introduce yourself first as group, then as parts.

    Frank Lopez was born in Puerto Rico, and moved to the US for college. He started subMedia in 1994, but the current iteration of the project dates back to the early 2000s when he “discovered [he was] an anarchist.” Between 2003 and 2005, he made his first anarchist films Join the Resistance, Fall in Love, and Why I Love Shoplifting from Big Corporations, both based on the CrimethInc. book Days of War, Nights of Love. As “The Stimulator,” Lopez covered every major uprising from the Bush years till Trump.

    Lopez currently resides in Montreal, where he moved four years ago “because it has the largest anarchist community in North America.” Lopez visited New York recently, and I went to meet him in Midtown Manhattan, where he’d just finished speaking on a panel at the Radical Film Network Conference. He had only two hours before he was scheduled to screen one of his films at a movie theater in the East Village, so we jumped in a cab and started talking.

    How did you get into film making?

    When I was in high school, my dad started an all-news TV station in Puerto Rico. My school had a closed-circuit television system, where we advertised school dances and other events. I was allowed to use the equipment at my father’s TV station, so me and my friends started making little commercials for school events. After the production was done, we’d go to the TV station and I would just sit and edit for hours. I absolutely loved it. That’s when I decided to go to film school and learn this shit. I’ve been making films since then.

    Why did you decide to end your show It’s The End of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine?

    Personally, I got burnt out on the show. I’ve been doing the show for ten years. I don’t know if you’ve ever done something for that long but after sometime you start going, Is this the last show? Didn’t we already do this? Everything starts to blur together. Most of the time we were doing it twice a month, and coming up with funny shit is challenging to do all the time. 

    We also noticed that more and more people were watching videos like ours by themselves, often on their cellphones. To a very tiny scale, we felt like we were part of contributing to that by creating super short videos. 

    You recently launched the new documentary show Trouble, through which you distribute a 30-minute documentary each month. “Troublemakers” can subscribe at $10 a month and receive a copy in advance to organize screenings, and others can view it online for free a few days later. How did you come up with the idea?

    Between 2010 and 2012 I went on tour and did 150 screenings with a feature film that I made, and I saw how useful community screenings are, especially in smaller cities, in terms of connecting people with radical ideas. We wanted to do something that facilitated people meeting each other in this way. We also wanted to make it really easy for people to put together these events. Bringing a speaker to a community costs money, you have to fly them in, provide accommodations… But with a screening, you download a film, you get a projector, and gather people at a space. There’s always a projector somewhere. There’s always a space that you can use. 

    We are asking people to donate $10 a month to get the video a few days in advance. Once that Sunday arrives, anyone can download it and screen it. We provide people with a downloadable poster that they can modify. We also give people sample questions to kickstart discussion after the film screening as well as other resources: links to other films, zines and further reading. We decided to make the film 30 minutes because we felt that in community spaces, usually the seats are very uncomfortable, so that’s a suitable length. You show something, then maybe talk for an hour, then people then mill around – that’s a two hour event.

    It seems subMedia has adapted to changing technology very quickly with every shift, and now you’re going back to physical screenings and using it to bring people together in a more intimate, old-school setting. Do you see it as a kind of counter-reaction to the direction technology is headed?

    For sure, and we’re scared to death. We’re essentially slaves to Facebook. The majority of our traffic comes from shared links on Facebook. Google and Twitter are very distant second and third. We see that. On Facebook, 30-minute videos don’t get a lot of play. But we’re also finding that more and more people are watching documentaries, be it at a screening or online by themselves. There seems to be a longer shelf life in terms of how it traverses the internet and different social networks.

    Who are the people in subMedia? 

    My partner Heatscore and I are really the only members of the collective per say, if two people can make a collective. We have a number of volunteers and people who apprentice under us. Some volunteers have been with us for a long time and help us here and there when they have time, they mostly track down appropriate footage for different segments. It can be a gargantuan task, especially since the style that we’ve adopted is total visual saturation, and we don’t like talking heads. 

    Other volunteers come to our work spaces – Heatscore and I live in separate cities – and help us edit video, log interviews, and so on. We try to teach them every single facet of what we do in the hopes that, if we eventually get more money, we can pay them to keep doing it. We’d like to include more people in the collective who get paid.

    What else would you like to do if you had more money?

    A really big part of what we did with the Stimulator show was to recontextualize things happening in other parts of the world that people don’t pay attention to, and bring them to a North American audience as well as a European audience. Now that we aren’t doing that show anymore, we’ve found that there’s a void. I’m really missing out on a lot of stuff from Asia and other parts of the world. We’d like to keep those struggles alive, tell people it’s not just North America, it’s not just Trump and similar things we’re inundated with news about. 

    Last month we produced our second episode of Trouble, which is all about the rise of the new right in North America and in Europe. When doing research for that we went down this rabbit hole of far right media, and what we found was extremely troubling. They have a tremendous amount of reach, much more than radical media outlets. Their productions are slick, and they are reacting to things as they happen. It’s unfortunate but we can’t ignore it. I think we have the knowhow to react to that, but we need a larger team of people. We’d like to raise a larger amount of money and hire people to help us out. 

    How do you feel about anarchist organizing today?

    I think the work that anarchists have been doing in the last decade has proven extremely valuable, and I think a lot of people are seeing their various infrastructure projects pay off, be that info shops, media initiatives, or support work for migrants. Also, when this motherfucker got elected and people started knocking on all of our doors, it’s a testament that we have good politics and good instincts. Now there’s a lot of interest, especially because people are so disenchanted with the democratic party. 

    The night after Trump got elected, people acted autonomously. I know anarchists were involved in a lot of those things, but let’s be real, a lot of those people weren’t anarchists. They were angry democrats as well. I think those people are looking for a different way of doing thins. I feel really happy that anarchists didn’t just drop the ball during the Obama years when things were quiet. I mean there was Occupy, Black Lives Matter … For people who’ve followed politics for a while, you’ll remember how the Bush years were and how engaged people were, and during Democratic administrations things seem to wane. But anarchists kept doing what they do because obviously we don’t believe in the two-party system. I think that’s a good thing.

    The thing that worries me is that anarchists need to be friendlier, need to provide spaces that are more welcoming. I’m not saying that all spaces need to be like that. We don’t let people into subMedia just like that, we don’t have the door open like, “Hey, come on in,” there’s security considerations. But in all my years of being an anarchist, I have found spaces not to be particularly friendly, somewhat standoffish, a general unwillingness to meet people where they are at. 

    The thing that really convinced me to take an anarchist path in my life was the patience of two good comrades. We spent long nights talking about stuff, breaking down my ideas about pacifism, reform, or supporting third party candidates. I just don’t see enough of that happening. People need to invest time in talking to people, and not just shit on their ideas because they find them stupid or naive or whatever. The time other people invested in me paid off because I’ll be a lifelong anarchist involved in struggle. I credit these two people for that. If we did more of that, we’d have more people who stick around. They won’t necessarily become anarchists but at least they’ll resist with us. I see people going to anarchist spaces and afterwards asking themselves, Why the fuck do I want to be in this place? Why would I want to be with people who don’t like me or are unfriendly to me?

    The second episode of Trouble, “Bash the Fash,” covered the history of anti-fascist organizing and the significance of fighting nazis in the street. Some of the people who were interviewed also talked about the importance of longer-term organizing as preventative work, and the importance of organizing the working class before the alt-right does. Do you agree with that?

    Beating up fascists is extremely important to do, we can’t let them take the street. In Quebec right now, the right is rising, it’s been able to take the streets twice in Montreal and none of us are happy about that. They need to be shut down completely. But yes, that’s only one facet of the resistance. In general, we need to think really, really long term, even ten years is too short of a long view. Like I said, anarchists have done a lot of work building infrastructure. But I think not enough work has been done to connect with the working class, at least not in North America, at least as far as the projects that I’m aware of. It’s really unsexy work. An info shop can be cool, social spaces are cool, making videos is cool. I think it’s hugely important. I’m really inspired to see that the IWW as a radical union mostly lead by anarchists has gotten a new life, including in Montreal.

    Something that comes up in your work is the idea of realism. The need to be realistic. Sometimes you’ve used it to critique obsession with a single issue. Other times you’ve brought it up to critique people who aren’t doing anything, to say, we have to be realistic about how crazy shit’s going to be, it’s unrealistic to do nothing. What does realism, reality mean to you?

    To me, being realistic has to do with lived experience and understanding the broader context. Take indigenous people for example, who have much less resources than any of us, and are the most criminalized, abused, and oppressed population, at least in Canada. When you look at the systematic brutalization and genocide of this people, their affinity for their territory is unbelievable. They’re so connected with what it really means to protect nature, in a way that most of us will never understand. The things they do to protect territory should give us more privileged nonwhites and privileged white folks an idea of what’s real. And so, when we complain about how we can’t stop that pipeline, we just have to look at examples of people who did it, who had both much less and much more to lose than us. What they’ve been able to create. 

    Independent radical media often presents itself as giving a truer version of what is going on in the world. After Trump won, a lot of liberal media started lamenting that truth doesn’t matter anymore. How do you think about ‘truth’ at subMedia?

    Truth matters. It doesn’t matter what Trump says, truth matters. Sometimes we get facts wrong and if we don’t own up to the fact that we fucked up, we loose credibility. If people think you’re full of shit, they are not going to go back to support you or listen to you or share your stuff. 

    At the same time, there’s no objectivity. I’ve heard more conversations about objectivity from liberal media this year than ever before. They are obviously scared of Trump and they are basically saying, let’s not be objective anymore, the gloves are off. I’m like, hooray, but this is what they do already, it’s what we do. We strive for the truth, but the fact is, you focus the camera there and not over here, that creates a different truth and focus. You’re always going to focus on the point of view that you want to amplify. 

    For instance, I defend riot porn. The earliest war coverage I remember that really stuck with me was the first Iraq war in 1991. It was the first war that was fully on television. For the mainstream media, that was the truth, that was the right angle. They were not saying, “We’re pro this war,” but their language was basically applauding George Bush. Meanwhile, I don’t see the media treating anarchist movements in a fair way, ever. It’s always been viewed through the lens of property destruction. It doesn’t matter that George Bush destroyed the property of so many people. That’s not property destruction, war is never described as violent. Even though actual people die. I don’t know of any examples in recent memory of anarchists killing anybody. And so for me, it’s just flipping the script and saying, here’s us winning in the street. Here’s this corporation that does so much damage to the environment, women, minorities, getting smashed. Here’s this police car, this oppressive institution, getting burnt. 

    A lot of the time I use the same footage as mainstream media; I just recontextualize it. But in a way I’m not doing anything particularly radical, I’m doing exactly the same as the mainstream media, I’m just re-contextualizing and redirecting it to a different audience. I feel really comfortable in that role. I want to put the info out there that, holy shit, these young warriors in New Brunswick burned six cop cars, and nobody snitched! That shit is awesome. It’s also empowering and uplifting. Especially when all the media that you see is against you.

    What does your day-to-day media diet look like? 

    It’s increasingly hard for me to find time to read. I read It’s Going Down every day. I can’t say enough good things about that website. I also read the CrimethInc. website. I have an extremely busy life, so a lot of how I consume media is through podcasts while I’m doing the dishes or other duties. Podcasts are the fucking cat’s pajamas. I also like audiobooks, because I can listen to them while doing other things. To be honest, I think many people who work in documentary film would say the same thing – let’s face it, we deal with a lot of shitty subject matter, so at the end of the day I really don’t want to deal with reality. I’m like the rest of America, I watch TV series, I consume a lot of science fiction and other things that are somewhat escapist. 

    I wonder how you feel about the increasing power of Silicon Valley under this new administration. Many things that left-of-center or leftist groups have been championing over the last several decades are now lower on the list of the government’s priorities than before – environmental issues, public health, renewable energy, social welfare, and so on. But while the Trump Administration is turning away from these issues, tech companies are stepping in. It doesn’t seem all that unlikely that Silicon Valley starts providing something like universal basic income or transforms the energy industry before the government does.

    All the global warming and UBI initiatives aside, I think they’re extremely dangerous – how they have their hands on the spigots of the information flow, and the amount of power concentrated in the hands of a few rich people in California. The promise of the internet came from a very libertarian view, but some elements were anarchic – that the internet was going to be a place where information can flow freely without hindrance. We’re finding more and more that that promise is very close to coming to an end. 

    I don’t know how to fight it. Our hope is always that we can own the infrastructure that carries our films to the public and that our website will always live there. But the reality is that less and less people come to the website, more and more consume them through social media platforms. I’m open to ideas for how to break from that, ‘cause in the end, the wires don’t belong to us, the large companies that control the algorithms don’t belong to us, right now we have to use them. It’s a really shitty situation to be in. 

    We have a lot of comrades who work in the tech sector and I hope they don’t get bought out completely, that they instead spend time doing the good work of trying to figure out ways to break from the online media monopolies. Back in the 90s the slogan of Indymedia was, be the media. Don’t just hate the corporate media, be the media. We took that call seriously. But being the media in this new reality means we are the media inside of these fiefdoms that are very feudalistic, and we’re once again fighting this battle. The next big battle for us to fight is to how to make information be free. I know it sounds trite but it’s something that’s needed.

    If the slogan that inspired you was to ‘be the media,’ what guiding words do you want to pass on to the next generation of radicals?

    To me it never seemed possible that I would be working fulltime making anarchist videos that glorify people throwing molotov cocktails and setting cop cars on fire. But here I am, I’m doing it. Obviously it’s almost a joke, but I think that the system makes us think that a lot of things aren’t possible, that we have to use the most travelled path to reach our goals. I’m not saying people should take inspiration from me specifically, but take inspiration from people who create projects that completely fall outside of those well traveled paths. Understand that hard work and believing in yourself and what you’re doing can work. You can actually do things that make you happy and fulfilled. I’ve had jobs in my life, not many, but I’ve had bosses, and I was never happy in those. Right now I wake up every day with an eagerness to get to work. I would love to be able to bottle that and give it to people. I want you to feel what I feel when I sit down at my desk, I’m fucking happy to do it.

    Watch the latest episode of Trouble on sub.media, follow them on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and help them grow by supporting their Patreon.

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