Long Distance Mom: Antioch Confidential

Apr 17th, 2009

By Elizabeth Coffman, Blog U, Inside Higher Ed — read the original blog post here.

“If evil is inevitable, how are the wicked accountable?
Nay, why do we call men wicked at all?
Evil is inevitable, but is also remediable.”
–Horace Mann

Horace Mann’s quote appears on the web site of “The Antioch Papers,” an open archive for materials that address the closing of Antioch College by the Board of Trustees of Antioch University in 2007, the misuse of Antioch endowment funds, and the rejection of alumni donations. Alumni have attempted to buy back the college from the governing Antioch University in order to operate independently. Even though progress seems to have been made recently, the Board has rejected all prior proposals from Antioch College alumni.

In 1853 Horace Mann was Antioch College’s first provocative president. Antioch professor (and Mann niece) Rebecca Pennell was the first U.S. woman to receive equal pay and rank with male professors. Coretta Scott King and other important black civil right leaders attended or were graduates. The greatest irony of Antioch’s closing, and one that has not escaped these pages, is that Antioch College was known nationally for its shared governance practices, and as one of the first institutions to include students in the administrative life and decision-making of the college. As economic times have changed and enrollment levels dropped, however, Antioch’s conservative Trustee Board reveals the vacuum at the heart of shared governance practices — BOTs still hold the purse strings of universities and they can open and shut them at will.

One of the documents on the “Antioch Papers” site (that Paula Treichler has also referenced) is Brian Springer’s video ANTIOCH CONFIDENTIAL (2008). Media curator and Antioch colleague Chris Hill brought the video to my attention recently when she was speaking last week at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hill is widely known in the media art world as someone who has supported, reviewed and documented the video art and public access movements of the 70s and 80s. She curated Video Data Bank’s important anthology, “Surveying the First Decade,” which demonstrates the cross-fertilization between artists, journalists and filmmakers in the early days of the video Portapak. From Steina Vasulka’s experimental video effects in SWITCH! MONITOR! DRIFT! (Steina Vasulka, 1976) to the QUEEN MOTHER MOORE SPEECH AT GREENHAVEN PRISON (People’s Communications Network, 1973), the push towards achieving a transparency of ideas, materials and politics with new forms of technology is obvious in Hill’s work.

Transparency is the driving theme of ANTIOCH CONFIDENTIAL — a theme that becomes evident through ironic juxtapositions of material. The video opens with text appearing over an aerial shot of Antioch college from a 1967 student film: This footage was shot for you. Next, we cut to a shot from the Antioch College library video cameras: This footage was not shot for you. This footage was shot to document a Homeland Security exercise directed by a private corporation. Then, we drop back forty years earlier to a 1967 Antioch student film that was staged in the same part of the library (with the same paint color it appears), featuring a group of young, black performers happily singing “My Girl…”

The dominant footage in ANTIOCH CONFIDENTIAL is the staged hostage takeover of the campus, a military exercise that began in Antioch’s Coretta Scott King Center in the same month as the announcement of the closing of the college. Springer creates links between the Antioch SWAT team contractor, L3/Titan, the company that supplied the translators for Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the university board. The video text describes how student enrollment dropped dramatically once Antioch University took over the finances and curriculum of Antioch College. The blame for the mismanagement of Antioch College is clearly placed at the feet of the administration of Antioch University, just as mismanagement of the Iraq war by private contractors lies with the Bush administration. Not surprisingly, Antioch University threatened Brian Springer and Tim Noble, the “Antioch Papers” website creators, with legal action for the release of “confidential attorney-client communications.”

Library staff resented military exercises taking place in their building and refused to close the Antioch library. In the video we occasionally see students checking out books while the theatrical hostage takeover with actors and plastic machine guns goes on around them. We hear Homeland Security and library staff talking off-camera about the exercise. An off-screen advisor provides direction to the terrorist/actor, “Call them oppressors of the masses…!” The actor then yells the statement across the library at other students, as directed. Someone else off-screen references the fact that the Homeland Security leader for the Antioch exercise is assigned directly to the (Bush) White House. Text and a link with the video provide more information about this figure — Kevin Gates, Executive Office of the President, Office of Science & Technology Policy, Homeland and National Security Division — striding through the Antioch library. Springer inter-cuts this 2007 “hostage” footage with the 1967 student music film throughout the video, juxtaposing an earlier Antioch College — a place for diversity and singing in the library — with the more recent Antioch College — a place for Homeland Security exercises and the silencing of a faculty.

ANTIOCH CONFIDENTIAL continues video art’s investigative impulses by highlighting the paranoid conservatism that has grown out of the 9/11 tragedy and its unfortunate backlash. ANTIOCH CONFIDENTIAL makes obvious how this backlash can dampen diversity, end economic transparency, and stifle colleges with vision.

In order not to shut down the Antioch learning environment (or the Yellow Springs economy) entirely, Hill and other faculty have formed the Nonstop Institute, a liberal arts educational “project,” funded by Antioch alumni. The Nonstop Institute continues to educate students according to the participatory and inclusive mission of Horace Mann.

Meanwhile, Antioch’s sprinkler system has frozen and water has drained into closed classrooms. Antioch College continues to crumble, just as it appears that the alumni plan is making more progress with the BOTs. The Great Lakes College Association together with members of the Antioch College Alumni Association and the Antioch University Board of Trustees agreed in June 08 to have “conversations,” which led to a “Letter of Intent” in January 09 about creating an independent Antioch College. They better hurry…